Much as I'd like to see a confrontation over outdated union contract rules that make it harder to run public schools, quiet negotiation usually works better.
That's the lesson from New Haven, where a renegotiated teacher contract could bring major reform, and also in Rhode Island, where after the high-profile "firing" of all the teachers at a high school, everyone ended up keeping their jobs after lengthy discussions produced concessions from the previously intractable union.
So it's good news that state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan is sitting down, privately, with Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowski, the Hartford Federation of Teachers and a mediator to try to calm an ugly fight over seniority and find a solution that everyone can live with.
It won't be easy. Seniority is a cornerstone of unionism and collective bargaining. Adamowski has asked the State Board of Education to order a change giving Hartford more control over which jobs are eliminated.
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"There is strong disagreement around seniority. It is a very big legal matter and a major policy issue," said McQuillan.
Because he will be laying off hundreds of teachers next month, Adamowski wants to make sure that the creative young educators at his most promising schools aren't among them. Union contract rules, however, mandate a "first hired, last fired" rule — which Adamowski and the Hartford Board of Education say will mean that quality young teachers will get the boot.
According to a memo from the Hartford school board's lawyers, this "will cause teachers with the special skills and training necessary to effectively implement unique school models to be bumped by teachers who do not have such skills and training."
Laying off teachers based only on seniority — and ignoring talent and the needs of the schools — is a mistake. If a deal can't be reached, the state board should step in and force a change in the outmoded "first hired, last fired" rule.
But before making the dramatic and controversial move of scrapping the foundation of a union contract, it's worth one more attempt to reach an agreement. McQuillan, I hope, is the one who can bring both sides together.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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