The president of United Teachers Los Angeles had harsh words for a recently proposed settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the nation’s second largest school district that could alter how the seniority of instructors is considered during layoffs.

The ACLU and other organization filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the Los Angles Unified School District, alleging that the civil rights of students at three of LAUSD’s lowest performing schools were being violated due to the fact that they traditionally do not have experienced, quality teachers.

“I think it’s the wrong solution,” UTLA President A.J. Duffy said after the settlement. “It’s not going to deal with the problems of teacher turnover.”

The union responded to the agreement in a statement Oct. 6, the day after the announcement that LAUSD and the civil liberties organization were considering settling the case.

“UTLA and our attorneys will be meeting with the parties and the court in the next few weeks to review the terms of the agreement,” the union wrote. “If necessary, UTLA will formally oppose the formal settlement.”

LAUSD Communications Director Robert Alaniz said the pact with the ACLU is based on alleviating unfair numbers of teacher cuts to schools that traditionally educate students from economically deprived backgrounds.

“This is a legal remedy to ensure that low performing schools are not burdened by a disproportionate share of (teacher reductions),” Alaniz told The Argonaut. “It is not an assault on seniority.”

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, Playa del Rey, Del Rey, Mar Vista and Venice schools in District 4, called the proposed legal agreement “a very interesting new framework” regarding how educators might be selected for layoffs during a time of fiscal crisis at LAUSD.

“I think that the important thing will be to see if this will correct an imbalance between layoff distribution but doesn’t create an imbalance in other areas,” said the board member.

Teachers with less experience are often the first to be given pink slips, but now more senior teachers at some schools could face the layoff axe as well.

According to Alaniz, under the terms of the proposed agreement, as many as 45 schools could be protected from layoffs if they have high teacher turnover but show “growth over time” in academics. For other schools, layoffs would be distributed on a more proportional basis throughout the district.

In addition, there could be incentives such as bonuses for teachers at underachieving schools if academic performance improves.

Zimmer agreed with Alaniz that changing teacher seniority was not the reason behind the proposed accord.

“I’m not against seniority, and I don’t think that this does away with seniority in the way that some people might think,” Zimmer, a former LAUSD teacher, said.

The criteria for which schools will be included in the 45 that could be exempted has not been determined yet.

“The settlement has not been finalized, so that has not been decided,” Alaniz said.

Zimmer said educators with five or six years of teaching experience could be considered for staff reductions under certain conditions as well as their less experienced colleagues, but those with 10 years or more would not likely be candidates for a layoff.

“Even a devastating reduction could not go that deep,” Zimmer said.

Fred Page, a business and mathematics teacher at Westchester High School, said seniority is a crucial benefit to instructors who have dedicated their lives to the profession.

“We’ve worked very hard for our health care benefits and our seniority,” said Page, who has been teaching for 16 years. “And I don’t think that we should lose it.”

Venice resident Heather Kahler, whose daughter attends Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School, said new teachers often bring fresh, creative perspectives to the classroom.

“Newer teachers, especially anyone who has recently obtained credentials or degrees, are likely doing so because of passion, and a heart for it,” Kahler, a children’s animator who is now studying to become a teacher, asserted. “And newer is not always ‘younger or inexperienced.’

“Many people choose teaching as a second career and have lived a great deal of life, been parents, conquered many challenges. And they can bring experience, fresh passion, current methods and ideas of engaging youngsters that really teach them something, both academically, and as human beings.”

Zimmer said that according to the terms of the proposal, there will be multiple measures to rate a school that will be considered when the district examines what it might consider “low-performing” schools where tests scores and other academic criteria have not been up to LAUSD standards.

He pledged not to have a school be categorized as low performing using only the Academic Performance Index (API), a state score based on standardized tests, as the barometer of success. “I would never agree to a system that is based solely on test scores,” the board member vowed.

But that is exactly what Duffy and the union fear.

“One of the unintended consequences of (the proposed legal agreement) will be the continued narrowing of the curriculum and the creation of teaching to the test,’” the union president claimed, referring to an often criticized manner of focusing on test scores instead of a student’s ability to comprehend core education subjects.

What constitutes “failing” or underperforming schools is sometimes a matter of opinion. Zimmer singled out four schools in his district — Marina del Rey Middle School in Del Rey, Broadway Elementary School in Venice and Beethoven Elementary and Mar Twain Middle Schools in Mar Vista — as schools that have made leaps and bounds academically over the last two to three years.

“These are great examples of schools that have shown significant growth in multiple measures,” he said. “And you want to take measures that protect that success (by making layoffs more proportional).”

The proposed settlement also includes the provision that reductions in teaching staff will not exceed the district average. In addition, Zimmer said he advocated for a clause in the agreement that would mandate a judicial review of outcomes every year.

“This is to ensure that we are not creating more problems by trying to solve them,” the board member explained.

Kahler believes dedication should be one of the most important considerations when grading educators and when teacher reductions are being weighed.

“The bottom line is students need passionate, skilled, caring teachers,” she said. “Experience and tenure in some cases can be a poor measure of a teacher, much as a multiple choice test can be a poor measure of a student’s potential and ability.”

Kahler said the influence of a quality instructor is not always readily seen and at times can surface in later years.

“Sometimes the positive effects a teacher has on a student may not even show up until later grades, when they finally ‘get it,’ or use the study habits their teacher from two years ago drilled into them, or when word problems finally make sense,” she said. “Maybe it’s not because of their current teacher, but because of a moment a year earlier that finally sinks in.”

Zimmer said the proposed new framework was by no means a magic bullet, and he was disturbed by what he called a celebration among some after the news that LAUSD and the ACLU had reached an accord.

“I was very concerned about the rush to elation after what we did (Sept. 5),” he said. “I think that a modicum of caution should be encouraged before we see the results of this new framework.”

Page said ultimately that UTLA would be responsible for defending teachers’ rights as it pertains to the details of the proposed accord.

“I didn’t spend 16 years in the classroom to lose my seniority,” the teacher said. “This is an issue for the union to fight for us.”

Duffy said teachers want a “safe, secure, clean work environment with back-up from the administration along with shared leadership” and until those questions are addressed, a chasm will remain between the district and UTLA.

“Until we have an honest discussion about that, the turnover rate will continue,” Duffy predicted.

The agreement requires court approval to become official.

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