History shows need for seniority in schools

Dale Swanson
Guest Columnist

Those who are determined to hide or do not know the history of seniority for teachers and principals are doomed to relive it.

In 1942, the Duluth School District looking for budget savings adopted a “juniority” policy which targeted more experienced and better paid teachers and particularly married female teachers to be first laid off.

The Supreme Court in Ging upheld these priorities as within the discretion of school boards in cities of the first class. Within a few months, the Minnesota Legislature addressed those abuses of discretion by mandating layoffs occur based upon period of service and qualifications evidenced by licensure in those cities.

Comparable abuses of discretion continued in all other school districts until 1974.

One of my earliest experiences involved the retaliatory discontinuance of German teacher Harvey Schmidt in Detroit Lakes despite over-flowing German classes and the hiring of a new probationary French teacher.

Schmidt was a Seventh Day Adventist who declined to chaperone dances or sporting events on his Saturday Sabbath days.

The Ely School District had a policy modeled by the Minnesota School Boards’ Association which barred married female teachers from ever acquiring tenure and provided that tenured female teachers would forfeit tenure if they married.  After being “discontinued” and rehired every year for a decade or so for being married, Carole Perry complained, was not “rehired” and later prevailed in the Supreme Court on appeal.

Richard Dreyer was a principal in Battle Lake who sent his children to a fundamentalist Christian school.

His school board retaliated by discontinuing his position and offering him the Hobson’s Choice between half time employment as principal or demotion to classroom teacher. He also prevailed on appeal.

These patterns of abuse in making terminations and demotions in response to declining enrollment and financial limitations forced the Legislature in 1974 to replace school board discretion with period of service and qualifications evidenced by licensure in all other Minnesota school districts.

The irony is that the term “quality” never entered into the debates from 1942 through 1974 except to contrast the abuses of discretion by school boards.

Not ironic at all is the fact proponents of abolishing limits on school board layoff discretion now do not remind the public that school boards continue as before to have discretion where to make cuts.

Boards can choose to discontinue directors of human resources or curriculum or terminate severance or deferred compensation for many employees rather than discontinue the supposedly brilliant rookie teacher mentioned in their anti-employee rhetoric.

Line up the reported evils of seniority against those of school board discretion, and let us choose which devils to fear.

— The writer is an attorney in Forest Lake who has extensive work in school law cases and negotiations.