Superior Court Enjoins Los Angeles Unified School District From Implementing Layoffs For Teachers At Three Middle Schools

June 2, 2010 | Bulletin No. 941104.1

In Reed v. State of California, (Case No. BC 432420, May 13, 2010), the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles, considered whether to grant a preliminary injunction in favor of a group of students to stop the Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”) from laying off more teachers at three middle schools in the district. The Superior Court concluded that “notwithstanding any contractual or statutory seniority-based layoff provisions,” the State of California and LAUSD should be restrained and enjoined “from implementing any budget-based layoffs of teachers” at three LAUSD middle schools that have been devastated by teacher layoffs in 2009.

UPDATE

For an updated discussion of the Reed case as well as relevant legislation, please see our Legal Alerts entitiled, "UPDATE: Consent Decree Negotiated Between School District and Students Cannot Abrogate Teachers Lay-off Rights", August 22, 2012 and "UPDATE: Will the Teacher Layoff Process be Reformed", July 23, 2010.

Facts

The three middle schools at issue, Samuel Gompers Middle School ("Gompers"), John H. Liechty Middle School ("Liechty), and Edwin Markham Middle School ("Markham"), are each ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in California in terms of academic performance. During a 2009 reduction in force ("RIF"), LAUSD sent RIF notices to 60% of the teachers at Liechty, 48% of the teachers at Gompers, and 46% of the teachers at Markham. These figures are in contrast with the fact that LAUSD only sent notices to 17.9% of all of its teachers. The RIFs resulted in a large number of teacher vacancies at all three schools.

LAUSD again sent RIF notices in 2010 to an estimated 6.6% of its teachers. However, 30% of the teachers at Markham received notices, while 21% of teachers at Gompers and 49% of the teachers at Liechty received notices. In contrast, only 30 of the 69 middle schools within the LAUSD will lose more than 10% of their teachers. Only 11 teachers who currently teach core academic subjects at Liechty will be able to return next year as permanent teachers because of the RIF. Students from these three schools ("Students") sought a preliminary injunction to enjoin further teacher layoffs at their schools.

Decision

All public school students are guaranteed "a fundamental right to 'basic equality of educational opportunity'" by the California Constitution. If the evidence in this case shows an impairment of Student's fundamental interest in education as a result of the layoffs, LAUSD's "conduct can only be justified if necessary to further a compelling state interest."

The Superior Court concluded Students "have shown a likely denial of equal educational opportunity." The three middle schools at issue were struggling before the RIFs, as shown by the fact that all three were ranked in the bottom 10% of California schools in academic performance. The court found the disparity in the numbers of teachers lost between these three middle schools and other schools is important "because the evidence shows there is a distinct relationship between high teacher turnover and the quality of educational opportunities afforded." Students presented the testimony of one expert who stated high turnover undermines "'the very fabric of the educational institution and learning environment.'" Students presented the testimony of a second expert who "explained that high teacher turnover 'is a significant cause of educational disruption for students.'" LAUSD did not dispute this evidence.

The court noted a severe disparity in the educational resources provided to students at these three middle schools compared to those at other schools in the LAUSD. The court found Students were denied "a stable, consistent teacher corps," something that is being afforded to other students within the LAUSD and the State of California. The court found that the disparities in the RIFs have severely affected the delivery of education at the three middle schools. Students at these schools have missed instruction on key topics in the core academic subjects. LAUSD does not assert the conditions in these schools are typical for schools in the district. LAUSD did not submit evidence to rebut the Students' "showing of the horrible experiences of certain students at [the three] schools in recent months." The evidence presented by Students "is sufficient to show a real and appreciable impact on [their] fundamental right to equal educational opportunity" and there is a reasonable likelihood the students will prevail on the merits of their claim.

The court concluded there is no compelling interest that justifies LAUSD's conduct. LAUSD argues that the layoffs are justified by the seniority system put in place by California law and its collective bargaining agreement with United Teachers Los Angeles. LAUSD asserts that permanent teachers have both "a 'property interest' in their jobs and a vested interest in the seniority system.

The court recognized "that if LAUSD were not allowed to layoff teachers at [Students'] schools (some of whom are non-permanent), LAUSD will layoff other LAUSD teachers (who may be permanent teachers)." It also recognized the California Legislature chose to adopt a seniority based system for layoffs. However, the court found that the Education Code expressly qualifies seniority rights by "allowing for deviations for pedagogical needs and constitutional interests." Education Code § 44955(d)(2).

The court found that LAUSD could not bargain away Students' constitutional rights in a collective bargaining agreement. It stated, "In other words, teachers do not have a vested interest[] in the application of seniority in a layoff that will result in an equal protection violation and a school district does not have discretion to violate students' fundamental right to equal educational opportunity."

The court found that the proper remedy is to enjoin further layoffs at the three middle schools. The court stated, "[A]lthough this may result in layoffs of other LAUSD teachers, those teachers' seniority rights are qualified, as the Legislature expressly contemplated, by the need to 'skip' teachers to prevent an equal protection violation."

The court ordered, "Notwithstanding any contractual or statutory seniority-based layoff provision, including California Education Code Section 44956, [LAUSD] is hereby restrained and enjoined, during the pendency of this action and pending further order of the Court, from implementing any budget-based layoffs of classroom teachers" at Gompers, Liechty, and Markham middle schools. The court further ordered that "[t]he classroom teachers (permanent, probationary, and long-term substitutes) currently assigned at the three schools, and only the classroom teachers at these schools must be skipped in the current layoff proceeding as permitted by California Education Code Section 44955(d)(2) . . . and shall not be subject to bumping by more senior employees . . . nor be subject to displacement by more senior employees exercising their rights to substitute assignments under Education Code Section 44956."

The court explained that its order shall not "have the effect of changing the status of any teacher at the three schools from long term substitute to permanent or probationary." Notwithstanding this provision, the court ordered that long-term classroom substitutes at the three schools who are skipped shall be retained for the 2010-2011 school year. The court's order does not preclude LAUSD from rescinding the layoff notices that it previously served on any permanent or probationary teachers at the three schools if LAUSD is able to do so. The order does not affect terminations that are not due to the budget-based layoff. Also, the order does not affect the right of LAUSD to proceed with the layoff of teachers at other schools in the district.

What This Means To You

Depending on the outcome of any appeals to this superior court case, there may be some impacts on how a district analyzes a future certificated layoff. Districts will now need to take a close look at the potential impact a layoff would have on a particular school site or group of students and may want to consider using skipping criteria pursuant with Education Code section 44955(d)(2) in order to protect the district from any potential equal protection claims.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Diana D. Halpenny | 916.321.4500