This guest post was authored by Mary Dowell and Meredith Karasch 

Students-in-Classroom.jpgThe Los Angeles Superior Court recently approved a class action settlement that allows LAUSD, in a layoff, to skip teachers at 45 schools in order to prevent constitutional violations in the right of students to be provided with a minimum level of education.  This case has received a great deal of attention for its effect of limiting seniority based layoffs in LAUSD.  The teacher’s union, UTLA, fought this settlement vigorously to protect teachers’ seniority rights in a layoff, excluding all other factors.

The suit began when students sued to enjoin teacher layoffs at schools in Watts, Boyle Heights and Pico-Union, alleging the seniority based layoffs violated their right to a minimum level of education the California Constitution guarantees.  These schools were hard to staff and undergoing reform efforts, and thus teachers were energetic and new.  The layoffs eliminated these teachers who had low seniority but were working to reform the schools.  Vacancies created by layoffs caused instability because the teachers on the reemployment lists did not want to work at these schools and many classes were staffed by short and long term substitutes. 

The parties negotiated a settlement, allowing LAUSD to skip all teachers at 45 “Targeted Schools,”  chosen based on low performance, high teacher turnover, and the growth in test scores over time, indicating reform efforts.  UTLA (who LAUSD brought in as a defendant) opposed the settlement because it violated seniority rights.  The judge determined the settlement was fair and legal.

The settlement is historic for several reasons.  First it allows skipping based on a school, rather than by teacher as is normally done.  Additionally, the settlement is based on a provision in the education code allowing skipping “for purposes of maintaining or achieving compliance with the constitutional requirements related to the equal protection of the laws.”  However, no case has defined the right a minimum level of education, nor has any court interpreted this provision to apply to the rights of students as opposed to teachers.  The judge found that the law’s requirement that layoffs occur on a strict seniority basis includes the principle that layoffs cannot violate students’ constitutional right to an education. 

Although the case ended with a settlement, large urban school districts which have schools with qualities similar to the “Targeted Schools,” may be able to use the judge’s findings to skip teachers at under-performing schools with high teacher turnover.  It is not clear whether this theory will extend beyond the K-12 school context, but if agencies believe a seniority based layoff will impact constitutional rights of third parties, they should consult counsel.  Liebert Cassidy Whitmore attorneys are available to advise any clients who may be faced with layoffs.