The Madison school board voted four to three last night to approve changes to the district’s employee handbook. The changes mean a switch to how the district reviews its teachers for personnel decisions.
Notably, the changes remove seniority as the sole factor determining which teachers get laid off first.
Under the new policies, seniority would still be a factor in who gets laid off. But, it would also be balanced with four other factors: culturally responsive practices, student learning objectives, proficiency in additional languages and a teacher’s academic credentials.
District leaders argue that the policy changes are a key step in recruiting and retaining teachers of color. Madison Teachers Incorporated, the union representing Madison’s teachers, says that the new policies will unfairly penalize senior teachers.
The changes come after a prolonged negotiation between MTI and the school district.
Michael Jones, President-elect of MTI and a teacher at Madison West High School, said at last night’s meeting that the district largely conducted the revisions behind closed doors — without taking the union’s input into account.
Since Act Ten undercut public sector unions ten years ago, MTI’s input on the handbook has largely been relegated to an advisory role.
“I’ve been part of many joint MMSD/MTI ventures,” he said. “Some of these collaborations have involved us meeting first and crafting plans together. Some of these collaborations involved MMSD developing their own plans and not sharing these plans or their rationale with MTI until they’re going before the board the next week. The handbook process over the past year trended towards the latter.”
But, Gloria Reyes, the school board’s President, said that MMSD administrators held dozens of meetings with MTI during the revision process.
Said Reyes: “There have been seventy meetings between district leadership and MTI leadership since September 3, 2020. Each meeting lasted for approximately one hour. There have been 23 Friday mornings where the superintendent met for one hour with MTI leaders since September 11, 2020. And there were twenty handbook meetings from October to March 2021 and each meeting lasted for approximately ninety minutes.”
Under the new policies, the district would weigh five factors in determining who gets laid off: seniority, culturally responsive practices, student learning objectives, proficiency in additional languages and a teacher’s academic credentials.
A sample rubric outlines how these are suggested to be weighed. But that rubric was not included in the school board’s vote.
That means that the exact weight for each of those factors can change year to year, under the authority of a separate oversight committee and without the explicit approval of the school board.
So in one year, proficiency in additional languages may be weighed at five percent. The next year, it could grow to twenty percent or shrink to one percent — all without a vote from the school board.
Julia Amann is the Student Representative to the Board of Education. She said at last night’s meeting that omitting a precise rubric from the handbook tilts authority and power in favor of the administration — and away from the board.
“Let’s be honest; in reality, oversight groups end up being dictated by the administration or they don’t have that much power — and that’s just how it works. I think it’s a problem that seniority could decrease to one percent without the board being formally consulted,” she said.
Three board members — Nicki Vander Meulen, Christina Gomez Schmidt, and Cris Carusi — voted against the changes.
Many community members who submitted written comments on the proposed changes said that the new metrics also raise concerns of objectivity for future layoffs. They argue seniority is a fairly straightforward way of assessing who gets laid off, but a subjective measure such as culturally responsive practices is a significantly more difficult thing to assess.
The district defines culturally responsive practices as understanding and being able to “articulate the systems and beliefs that may lead to inequitable outcomes for students of color, and adapt instruction to meet the needs of each student.”
But, the four board members who voted in favor of the rule changes — Ali Muldrow, Gloria Reyes, Savion Castro and Ananda Mirilli — argue that basing layoffs solely on seniority disenfranchises Black teachers and teachers of color — who are less likely to have been with the district for a long time.
They say that the district’s student population is becoming more diverse and its teaching staff is not keeping pace. That’s an issue Madison isn’t alone in facing.
According to a recent report from the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, an increasing diversity in Wisconsin’s student population contrasts sharply with the state’s teacher workforce, which is overwhelmingly white.
The rule changes will also set new standards for teacher transfers within the school district.
The new handbook, and the policy changes it entails, will take effect this July.