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Minnesota bill to end teacher seniority sparks debate

MOORHEAD - A bill introduced in the Legislature to end the use of seniority in determining teachers' job security is getting mixed reviews from administrators and teachers in Moorhead and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools.

The pending legislation, sponsored by Rep. Branden Peterson, R-Andover, was heard by the House Education Reform Committee on Tuesday.

Locals sympathetic to the bill, and those against it, say they want the best teachers in the classroom, but they disagree on how to make that happen.

"I get the logic," says Lauren Rood, president of Education Moorhead, the district's teacher's union. But he asks: How do you keep the alternative from devolving into an arbitrary decision?

"The union's stance is to protect seniority," he said Wednesday. "It's the fairest, 'How do you do this?'"

Last-in, first-out is hard on new teachers because of the prospect of layoffs, but it's up to administrators to manage the size of the staff, said Rood, who teaches automotive technology at Moorhead High School. If a teacher is underperforming, there is a process for a removal, he said.

Without tenure, the most vocal teachers, engaging instructors who are "advocates for students, and advocates for teachers," might be singled out for layoffs, Rood said.

"That's the fear. These teachers are also teacher leaders," he said.

Yet seniority doesn't always make teachers more effective, counters Ann Hiedeman, the human resources director for Moorhead School District.

"What's best for our students is a high-quality, effective teacher in every classroom. Often, that will be someone with years of experience, but unfortunately, not always," Hiedeman said.

"I certainly wouldn't downplay experience, but I personally don't believe that last-in, first-out is what's best for kids," she said.

Dan Boyd, president of the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton chapter of Education Minnesota, wants to see a "concrete, research-based" teacher evaluation system in place before seniority is set aside.

With that, "I think there'd be some support," he said.

In the meantime, the high school special education teacher prefers a seniority-based system.

"The more years I've spent as a teacher, the better teacher I am," he said.

For all the fireworks the seniority issue generates among education reformers, it may prove to be all pre-election posturing, said Bryan Thygeson, superintendent for D-G-F.

Beyond the bonding bill, there's no money to be spent for initiatives in this session, Thygeson said. Any mandates, would likely be unfunded, he said.

"It isn't going to happen," he predicted.

"I think the idea of solely having layoffs based on seniority - there's a lot of administrators that would like to see some changes to the system. And I think some educators, some teachers, would like to see changes, but not just to blow it up," Thygeson said.

Like Boyd, Thygeson and Rood say what's needed is an effective teacher evaluation system. Until the evaluation process is set, the bill would be better off shelved, Rood said.

"I think that cooler heads will prevail, and that's what I'm hoping for," he said.