Teacher tenure bill may be unacceptable to Gov. Dayton

Dayton and Cassellius
Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius appear at a news conference in this file photo taken at the state Capitol on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

House and Senate negotiators say they are trying to craft a teacher tenure bill that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton would be willing to sign, but the prospects of such a compromise this session appear bleak.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told members of a conference committee at the Capitol today that she thinks the repeal of current seniority rules is premature and could result in what she termed "reform overload."

This year's key education policy proposal for House and Senate Republicans is to get rid of the practice known as "last in, first out." They want public school administrators to be able to consider job performance, and not just years of service, when making decisions about teacher layoffs.

Cassellius said she shares the goal of having effective teachers in every classroom. But she told members of a House-Senate conference committee that she has serious concerns about the bill they're trying to finalize. Cassellius stressed that local school districts already have the option of negotiating a process for teacher layoffs.

"I think that the current law has an orderly process in place for laying off teachers. I don't see that that is a barrier for moving out our poorest performing teachers," Cassellius said.

Cassellius also said she doesn't want the seniority rules to change before a new statewide teacher evaluation system, which lawmakers approved last year, is developed and put in place. She said she wants to protect teachers from too many changes, coming too quickly.

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"That's a big concern of mine, because you get reform overload," Cassellius said "I want to be able to time and sequence out the types of reforms that we're doing and enacting in our schools so that there's just not so much that teachers and others are doing at one time."

Brenda Cassellius
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius speaks to a meeting of the Association of Metro School Districts on in this photo taken Jan. 7, 2010. Cassellius said this week she thinks the repeal of current seniority rules and teacher tenure is premature and could result in what she termed "reform overload."
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The commissioner's reluctance to embrace the seniority repeal did not sit well with most of the conferees. Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, a co-chair of the conference committee, took issue with Cassellius and her defense of the current system. Wolf said that system drives away too many good, young teachers.

"Often what happens is they go from one district, they go to another district, get laid off there, go to another district, get laid off, and they say 'I'm done with this. I'm done with teaching. I'm not going to go through this for my career. If nobody cares about how effective I am, why in the world do I want to stay in this career? If all that matters is when I signed my contract — that to me is not a process that works.' "

Even a Democrat on the conference committee pushed back against the administration. Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, told Cassellius that her attempt to hold up the proposed changes in seniority policy isn't defensible.

"It's difficult for those of us sitting around this table who feel so strongly that this is just common sense by a wide, wide margin," Bonoff said. "That, if we're going to lay somebody off, we want it to be first those who are least effective. And we can't even begin to understand why you wouldn't want to do that."

Despite her clear opposition, Cassellius said she did not know what the governor might do with the bill and suggested that he might be open to some compromise language. That prompted Rep. Branden Peterson, R-Andover, the counterpart conference committee co-chair, to adjust his approach to the negotiations. Peterson said after the hearing that he would bypass Cassellius and make a direct appeal to the governor.

"I was under the mistaken idea that you could call in one of his cabinet members and get the position of the administration, and apparently you can't," Peterson said. "Maybe I should have called in a direct member of his executive staff."

Dayton said later that he shares his commissioner's concern about giving the new evaluation system time to get going. He also said he is willing to meet with legislators at any time to discuss the issue.