Lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that would prohibit Utah schools from laying off teachers based on seniority, a major policy shift in public education.
Supporters say SB73 is aimed at improving education. But the president of the Utah Education Association (UEA) says it's one of four bills approved Wednesday that target either teachers or their unions.
"I think our teachers are very demoralized," said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, UEA president. "It has been a constant attack on us as professionals, and, quite frankly, unfounded attacks."
But Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who sponsored two of the bills that passed Wednesday, including SB73, doesn't see it that way.
"This has nothing to do with the association," Stephenson said. "I don't know what [leads] Ms. Gallagher to think that improving education is an attack on the union. If that's the case, maybe the union ought to look at its positions."
Stephenson said he ran SB73, which the House passed 45-28 on Wednesday and awaits the governor's signature, to make sure schools don't boot effective teachers just because they have less seniority. The bill would require schools to base layoff decisions on performance evaluations and a school's staffing needs instead of seniority. Now, districts' agreements with teachers' unions often require that seniority be a consideration in layoffs.
"I don't think that we necessarily ought to give new teachers preference, but I think we ought to give them a chance if they show great promise and that's what this bill will allow," said House bill floor sponsor Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane.
But throughout debate over the bill this session, union leaders and some lawmakers argued that seniority shouldn't be totally ruled out as an objective way to carry out layoffs. Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, who is a retired teacher, said Wednesday she feared "the decision of who's laid off or fired will just become a financial decision because, of course, new teachers are less expensive than the ones who have experience."
She said she is "aware of long-time teachers that have become lazy, but I think that's the exception rather than the rule."
Passage of SB73 comes amid a national discussion on the topic. A number of states forbid districts from considering any factor except seniority in layoffs though leaders in some states, such as New York, are working to change that.
During a conference call with reporters last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said districts shouldn't let go of effective, young teachers because it's the easiest path, but they also shouldn't get rid of effective, experienced teachers to save money.
Also, in recent weeks, measures have been debated in Wisconsin and Ohio aimed at curtailing the collective bargaining rights of those states' public employees.
Last week, during Senate debate over SB73, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said, "I just don't understand why we want to take away rights that we have given to employees. I know this is a national movement of doing away with rights of workers and the attempt to really diminish and destroy the middle class."
Gallagher-Fisbaugh says SB73 isn't the only bill this session aimed at teachers.
Lawmakers also passed a bill Wednesday to prohibit school districts from paying teachers on leave for union duties. Now, three districts Granite, Salt Lake and Davis pay a portion of their local union presidents' salaries, a practice that would no longer be allowed beyond 10 days time each year under HB183. Proponents say education money should stay in the classroom; the UEA has said those districts pay part of those salaries to compensate teachers for work they do that benefits the district. That bill awaits the governor's signature.
"That's an actual attempt to attack the teachers union because they feel we don't support them," said Elaine Tzourtzouklis, executive director of the UEA's Wasatch Uniserv, who was on union leave for 14 years as the former Salt Lake Teacher Association president. The district paid one-third of her salary, but she said she did more work for the district than that amount would cover.
The House on Wednesday also passed SB256, which would require career-status teachers be evaluated annually. But it also removes a provision from current law requiring districts to provide educators with poor evaluations "reasonable assistance to improve performance." House floor sponsor Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, said Wednesday the idea is to put more of the responsibility for improvement on the employee, while Gallagher-Fishbaugh said "that's not thinking of children." That bill now goes to the governor.
Finally, the Legislature passed SB206 on Wednesday, which would allow union members to withdraw from their unions and have their employers stop making dues deductions from their paychecks at any time. Stephenson said he ran the bill after some teachers told him they were not allowed to not stop paying dues mid-school year.
Gallagher-Fishbaugh, however, said teachers are already allowed to drop out and stop paying dues midyear. She said it seems like some are holding onto preconceived notions of what they believe the UEA to be.
"My frustration as the new UEA president has been the continual slam of the doors that I have received when I'm up here trying to go forward, to create a great education system for our students," she said.
She said some of the bills this year seem like attempts to implement practices already in place.
Countered Stephenson: "The union has often had a problem seeing problems in public education because they have been protectors of mediocrity."