Governor’s teacher seniority bill sidelined by Senate leader

Sweeping legislation sponsored by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would greatly diminish teacher seniority as a factor in layoff decisions, has been pulled back from active deliberation for a cooling off" period by the leader of the state Senate.

In a letter Thursday to education groups, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that he opposes the bill in its current form because it "abrogates due process and teacher seniority rights" and did not provide safeguards that senior teachers would not be dismissed simply based on their higher salary.

Although such a legislative maneuver might under most circumstances be viewed by a bill's supporters with political cynicism, in this case the bill's author said he understands Steinberg's motivation and, at least for now, seems to support it.

"I don't mind having that discussion," said Sen. Bob Huff, R- Glendora. "It's not my intent to have principals or superintendents empowered to capriciously layoff people. It's not intended to basically fire people for budgetary purposes - although there has to be a quality approach to who we retain, not a quality-blind approach as we have now."

A spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger also did not criticize Steinberg's decision.

"Current state statute does not allow local districts to even consider teacher effectiveness or the needs of schools," said Andrea McCarthy, a deputy press secretary in a statement.

"This puts the needs of California's children on the backburner and disproportionately affects our lowest-performing schools and violates the civil rights of students," she said. "The governor is pleased that Senator Steinberg will be focusing on some of these important issues, but our students and their parents expect we fix this issue immediately."

The stakes are high with SB 955. It not only represents a focal point for the governor's education agenda during his last year in office, but also seeks to remedy a long standing employment system that today jeopardizes the state's entire class of new teachers because of the ongoing and severe state fiscal crisis.

Steinberg said the bill is moving too fast through the legislative process and because it is designated with "urgency" could immediately become law.

"The measure requires a cooling off' period, so that parents, teachers, school administrators and the public have time for a constructive conversation outside the abbreviated time constraints of legislative committee deadline," he explained in the letter.

In addition to allowing school districts flexibility on layoffs, reassignments and transfers, the bill would also give districts until the end of the school year to notify teachers of potential layoffs and streamline the existing system for dismissing teachers.

Although the bill has drawn strong opposition from teacher unions, district administrators and parent groups - it passed out of a key Senate policy committee last week with bipartisan support.

As the head of the state senate, Steinberg exercised his authority Thursday to pull the bill back to the Senate Rules committee, which he chairs.

He said he wants to convene a series of discussions around the measure as well as such problems as how to ensure a balance of experienced teachers are assigned to schools regardless of student performance or neighborhood demographics.

Huff said he had been assured by Steinberg that the move was not intended to kill the bill. Although no specific timeline was agreed upon for when the measure might resurface within the legislative process, Huff said he was given further assurance that the bill would sometime this session receive an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

"I am hopeful that he will follow through on the intent of what he was saying," Huff said.

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