The Battle Over Teachers' Seniority Rights 

Oakland Unified's push to overhaul teacher seniority rights has sparked an intense contract dispute.


In recent weeks, teachers at more than twenty public schools in Oakland have cut back the hours they spend on the job in an effort to advocate for a better contract. Through this so-called "work-to-rule" protest — in which instructors work the minimum required hours and skip typical after-school labor, such as curriculum development — the teachers' union has drawn attention to its ongoing fight with the district. At tense school board meetings and in news stories on work-to-rule, teachers have spoken out about the importance of securing meaningful salary increases and the need for smaller class sizes.

But while wages and student-to-teacher ratios are critical components of the negotiations, it's the fight over a relatively more obscure part of the contract that has recently caused intense friction between the union and the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). The district's proposal to scale back seniority rights in teacher transfers has deepened teachers' distrust in new Superintendent Antwan Wilson — and could be the issue that ultimately leads to an impasse in negotiations or even a strike.

Wilson and district officials, who are currently negotiating a three-year contract with the union, have proposed a substantial overhaul to Article 12, a policy that governs how OUSD fills vacancies and reassigns teachers when their positions are eliminated due to declining enrollment, budget cuts, or school closures. Currently, when teachers have to transfer schools due to factors outside of their control, they apply to fill vacant positions within the district and school principals must honor their requests in order of seniority. That means teachers with the most experience in OUSD receive their first choices, and principals can't fill positions with newer teachers or outside candidates until instructors who have been forced to transfer get new assignments.

The district's proposed rewrite of Article 12, a copy of which was obtained by the Express, would largely eliminate the role of seniority in this process so that schools would consider all candidates applying to fill vacancies regardless of the number of years they've worked in the district. Additionally, reassigned teachers would have to compete with outside candidates for the open positions.

The district has proposed establishing school "personnel committees" that would be responsible for reviewing applicants and making hiring recommendations to the principal. The committees would have a maximum of seven members, and the majority of the members would be on-site teachers. However, the principal would make the final decision on hiring. If teachers don't receive job assignments through that process, the district would place them in instructional support roles, such as substitute teaching or curriculum development.

"This is personally very upsetting to me," Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association (the union), said in an interview. Unlike previous negotiations, this round of bargaining had been mostly respectful and productive — until the district presented its Article 12 proposal, she said. "With this potential impact on labor rights ... it's a great disappointment."

District officials argue that the proposal would significantly expand the role that school communities play in the process of hiring teachers through the establishment of the personnel committees, which could include parents and students. Unlike the current seniority-driven process, the proposed overhaul of Article 12 would help ensure that the teachers who are most suited for specific positions ultimately get the job, supporters say. "This isn't about eliminating teachers. They are going to be working in the district somewhere," said Troy Flint, OUSD spokesperson. "It's about finding the right match. ... More than anything, the focus is on student needs."

Jody London, a school board member who represents North Oakland, added: "I know of no other industry where the only criteria [in hiring] ... is whether you have more years on the job than another applicant."

Opponents, however, argue that the district's proposal constitutes a major threat to teachers' job security and that the district could use this rewritten Article 12 to push out teachers for unfair reasons. They also argue that the current system doesn't need to be reformed.

The fight over seniority comes at a time in which tensions between OUSD leadership and teachers have been intensifying. Much of the conflict centers on the district's new "Intensive Support Schools Initiative," a controversial effort to turn around five low-performing schools in the district. Wilson, who was hired as superintendent by the school board last summer, put out a request for proposals to redesign those schools — inviting both current leaders at the sites and outside charter school organizations to submit proposals. Some fear the process could threaten the jobs of teachers at those sites by encouraging takeovers by charters, which aren't part of the union (see "A New Era for Charter Schools?" 1/21/15).

This turnaround initiative, which teachers first learned about in December, has raised new concerns about the district's intentions with Article 12 — a proposal that Gorham said came as a surprise when OUSD presented it for the first time in November after months of bargaining. With the district simultaneously working to overhaul five schools and reform the process of teacher placements during school restructurings, teachers said it seemed clear that OUSD had a concerted agenda to strip away teachers' seniority rights.

While teachers throughout Oakland agree on the need for a substantial salary increase — OUSD pay ranks among the lowest in the country, when considering cost-of-living — Article 12 has sparked some internal debate. Vilma Serrano, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, a dual language school in Maxwell Park, told me that she has heard from teachers who said they would be willing to strike if the district doesn't budge on Article 12 — while others have said they would consider crossing the picket line if the union striked for that reason.

As a teacher in her third year at OUSD, Serrano said she could initially see the appeal of the district's proposal, which could benefit her if she had to compete with a more senior teacher during a transfer process. But she said she ultimately came to the conclusion that the Article 12 proposal was a bad idea. "We need to think about ways to make this into a sustainable profession," she said. "This really does seem to be aligned with what's going on at those five schools and ... destabilizing teachers' rights and teacher job security in Oakland."

In interviews, teachers and parents across the district expressed differing opinions about the Article 12 proposal. Marijke Conklin, a first-grade teacher at Melrose — whose teachers have adopted the work-to-rule tactic — said it's critical that teachers maintain protections tied to seniority, saying, "I'm a strong believer that teaching experience makes a huge difference in the classroom." But she said she believes there is room to increase flexibility in the hiring process so that seniority is not the sole determining factor. "Let's try to craft creative language that allows us to involve the community and involve powerful criteria," she said, arguing that the district's proposal could be improved by allowing the personnel committee members to have a direct vote on candidates, not just an advisory role.

Caitlin Healey, a special education teacher at Emerson Elementary School in North Oakland, said OUSD needed more data and analysis on the role of seniority in transfers before moving forward with this kind of dramatic change. The district and union have in the past followed an "advisory matching" process that facilitates meetings between schools and potential transfer candidates, but officials have not studied the success of that effort, noted Healy, who is also a member of the union's executive board. Ultimately, she said there didn't seem to be evidence that relying on seniority resulted in problematic placements: "People want to work at a place where they will fit in."

Other teachers said they felt strongly that the Article 12 proposal could be used to punish outspoken teachers. "It's a way of driving out the more experienced teachers who tend to be the ones who stand up and say what they believe," said Mark Airgood, a teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School and a union site representative. "This is just a way of attacking the union."

In Fruitvale, at Fremont High School, one of the five schools in the intensive support process, some longtime teachers are concerned that the Article 12 changes could prevent them from continuing to teach their current students once the school is redeveloped. With existing Article 12 protections, when schools close, teachers have a right to follow their students to a new facility. "If our school disappears around us ... can we stay with our kids?" said Patricia Arabia, a teacher at Fremont High since 1999. If new transfer rules and the turnaround initiative ultimately forced teachers to separate from their students, "That's horrible for the kids and horrible for the teacher," she said.

It's unclear what kind of compromise, if any, the district and union could reach on seniority rights. Flint said the district is willing to negotiate the terms of its Article 12 proposal, but noted that bargaining in general had grown strained in recent weeks — with substantial disagreements on the rate of salary increases, in addition to the rift on seniority rules.

But with something as fundamental as basic job protection, Gorham said, "We feel we have to take a strong position." She added: "What we really want to protect is the dignity of teachers who are displaced through no fault of their own."

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