MUSKEGON, Mich. – When times were tough in the past and teachers in the Muskegon, Michigan school district faced layoffs, seniority determined who stayed and who left.

Last in first out stopThat was due to the collective bargaining agreement between Muskegon Public Schools and the Muskegon City Teachers’ Education Association, which said, “When layoffs occur, the least senior teacher shall be laid off first, provided a more senior teacher is certified and qualified for the remaining position.”

Most school districts around the state used similar provisions for decades, discriminating against younger teachers who may have been more effective than their more senior colleagues, and against students and parents, who have a right to expect the best possible teacher in every classroom.

But recent reforms in state law outlawed old-fashioned union seniority rules, and the effect is being felt in Muskegon.

This year, all 300-plus Muskegon teachers received layoff notices because district officials are required to give advance notice of possible layoffs, and the new laws demand performance-based evaluations that are not expected to be completed until May 15, Mlive.com reports.

That means there’s no telling who will stay and who will go. Some teachers with years of seniority may suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in.

Layoffs will be necessary because the Muskegon district is facing a $2.6 million deficit next year, and Superintendent Jon Felske said most cuts will be to personnel. The number of layoffs will be determined by the amount of money the district manages to save in contract negotiations with its labor unions, according to officials.

“There will be anxiety over this,” Muskegon Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Human Services Betty Savage told the news site. “We value experience, but because you have 25 years, that alone won’t make you a better teacher over someone who has 20 years or 15.

“It’s about attracting and retaining the best teachers,” she said. “We want the very best working with our kids.”

Over roaring union objections, Michigan legislators revised state laws in 2011 to ensure no school district “adopt, implement, maintain or comply with a policy that provides that length of service or tenure status is the primary or determining factor in personnel decisions,” according to the revised school code.

The 2011 education reforms also stipulated teaching effectiveness as the most important consideration for hiring or laying off teachers, and required schools to base their effectiveness ratings on “evidence of student growth, which shall be the predominant factor in assessing an employee’s individual performance.”

Ninety-one percent effective

Michigan Capitol Confidential, a publication of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, points out the new state evaluation system will be a drastic departure from the way teachers in Muskegon and other school districts were evaluated in the past.

In Muskegon public schools, “For the 2011-12 school year, 91 percent of its teachers were rated as ‘effective,’ according to the Michigan Department of Education. There were 299 teachers rated as ‘effective,’ 19 teachers rated as ‘highly effective,’ four teachers rated as ‘minimally effective,’ and five teachers rated as ‘ineffective,’” according to Michigan Capitol Confidential.

“Out of 95,000 public school teachers in Michigan, less than 1 percent of them were rated as ‘ineffective’ last year.”

In other words, the more subjective teacher evaluations prior to the 2011 reforms were virtually meaningless, as nearly all teachers were rated the same. That reality meant strong job security for teachers, but student learning undoubtedly suffered.

Officials with the Michigan Association of School Boards said many school districts likely will consider layoffs this summer, but exactly how administrators issue pink slips will vary based on the date of districts’ collective bargaining agreements.

Collective bargaining agreements that predated the new law are grandfathered until they expire.

“I imagine there are quite a few (districts) that are grandfathered” with contracts predating the 2011 reforms, said Eric Griggs, assistant director of labor relations for the MSBA. “In that situation the school boards have to follow the guidelines that are in the contract.

“Generally, if they were grandfathered, it’s based on seniority.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools, the largest district in West Michigan, recently negotiated a new contract with teachers, and will base teacher layoffs expected in May on student needs, instead of union seniority, GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal told Mlive.com.

“I am going to be fair but not everybody is going to be happy,” she said. “Longevity is important to me but it’s not going to be a determining factor. We’re going to do it based on students and what are the needs of children rather than bidding and bumping people all over the place.”

Right-to-work factors in

The Mackinac Center reports that teachers unions in at least 54 Michigan school districts agreed to new or extended collective bargaining agreements in recent months, before the state’s new right-to-work law took effect March 28.

The idea was to gain new agreements that would lock in mandatory union dues payments from members for years. Once the new law took effect, union membership and dues payments became optional for employees.

But the new contracts also worked to school boards’ advantage. They gained the ability to manage their teaching staffs under the new laws that put effectiveness above seniority.

“If they renewed their teachers contract or extended their contract … they would have to comply with these laws” mandating performance-based teacher evaluations, Griggs said.

Mackinac Center education expert Michael Van Beek believes that many school districts that have rated all or nearly all teachers as “effective” in the past may have difficulty distinguishing good and great teachers from the mediocre. The Hazel Park School District, for example, rated all teachers and administrators as “highly effective” despite the district’s abysmal student achievement.

“To be fair, this is brand new territory for nearly all schools, but if they honestly want to improve the quality of teaching they offer students, they cannot continue to rubber-stamp these evaluations,” Van Beek said.

It seems school administrators are welcoming their new opportunity to manage schools in the best interests of their students.

“Everything is changing,” Muskegon Superintendent Felske told Mlive.com. “I’ve got almost 30 years in this business and it was exactly the same way for 28 of them. And I’ve got to say it (changes in the law) made it easier to manage the organization.”

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