JEFFREY BROWN: As the end of the school year approaches, thousands of teachers across the country are facing the prospect of being laid off. And that's prompting questions about the role of seniority in determining which teachers stay and who is let go.
NewsHour special correspondent John Tulenko reports from Hartford, Conn.
WOMAN: OK. You have got to take it piece by piece, remember?
JOHN TULENKO: Last summer, when Helena Richie was looking for a teaching job in Hartford, Conn., she got a call from Principal Gerald Martin, inviting her to an interview late on a Friday afternoon.
GERALD MARTIN, Rawson School: I needed a fifth grade teacher. And I was kind of pressed for it. She said, "Well, I can come Monday."
And I said, "OK, Monday?"
And she said: "You know what? I can come today."
JOHN TULENKO: She was hired. And she hasn't disappointed.
GERALD MARTIN: She had, on the first round of testing, the highest number of increases of anyone in grades three, four and five.
JOHN TULENKO: But recently, budget cuts forced Martin to eliminate two positions. And he knew right away who would have to go.
GERALD MARTIN: And I'm saying, oh my God. I just hired her. I have finally got someone, you know, who is working out really well.
JOHN TULENKO: And yet she's the one who has to go.
GERALD MARTIN: She has to go. And that's -- that's -- that kind of breaks my professional heart.
JOHN TULENKO: Martin has no choice because in Hartford, as in most places, layoffs are based entirely on seniority. It's last-in, first-out.
And Richie was last in. But now, with yet another round of teacher layoffs coming in Hartford and across the country, opposition to seniority is growing.
STEVE PERRY, Capital Preparatory High School: I don't care how long someone has been teaching. I want results.
JOHN TULENKO: The critics include Steve Perry, principal of Capital Prep, one of Hartford's most successful high schools.
STEVE PERRY: I want to be able to choose the faculty that work in this school, not because they have 10 years of service, or maybe just six years of service, but in fact, that they are the best fit for our children.
JOHN TULENKO: The way it works now has led to some strange decisions. For instance, it's often happened that two teachers started on the same day, but one has to go.
STEVE PERRY: His Social Security number ends in a one. Her Social Security number ends in a zero. She has the lower Social Security number; she gets to keep the job.
JOHN TULENKO: You're kidding me. You're not kidding me.
STEVE PERRY: It is an embarrassment to all that we do in education when it comes down to that.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI, Hartford Public Schools: I would suggest to you we can do better than that, that we have an obligation to our children to do better than that.
JOHN TULENKO: For more than two years, Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowski has been pushing to change seniority in the teachers' contract.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: Every student has a right to the most qualified teacher available and not the most senior teacher. I think that there is a growing realization that this is the emerging civil rights issue of our time.
MAN: We talked about this before.
JOHN TULENKO: But seniority has defenders.
ANDREA JOHNSON, Hartford Federation of Teachers: Experience has to count for something.
JOHN TULENKO: Andrea Johnson heads the Hartford Federation of Teachers.
ANDREA JOHNSON: If you were going to have an operation, I'm sure you would want the doctor with the most experience and the most time in the surgery to be your doctor. That's the way we look at teachers.
And I need to ask you about your latest grievance.
JOHN TULENKO: Johnson's union has rejected appeals from the district to base staffing decisions in part on teacher performance.
ANDREA JOHNSON: Children come to us as they come to us. We're just part of an equation. You have teachers. You have children. You have families. You have poverty. You have very disruptive situations within our country. It all mixes together.
JOHN TULENKO: When the result is failure, Hartford has moved aggressively to close those low-performing schools. But that creates another problem, what to do with all those teachers whose jobs are protected by union contracts.
STEVE PERRY: Well, those faculty and from those schools will now be dispersed throughout the district.
JOHN TULENKO: Could they come here?
STEVE PERRY: Oh yes, for sure.
JOHN TULENKO: Why? You're already full.
STEVE PERRY: I know, because they could bump into our school.
JOHN TULENKO: To fully grasp what's going on in Hartford, you have to know what is meant by bumping.
When a teacher loses their job, they have the right, under the contract, to take a position from another teacher with less experience anywhere in the district. Bumping is at the center of the controversy in Hartford, because it's seen as a threat to the district's five-year multimillion-dollar effort that replaced 19 failing schools with new schools.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: All of them have very -- operate very differently than the schools they replaced. They have a different ethos. They have different methods. They have different training requirements.
JOHN TULENKO: Hartford's new schools include a nursing academy and an academy for green technology. There are schools for language studies and for finance and insurance. And in all these places excess teachers could bump their way in.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: They don't even want to be there in the first place because they don't agree with the ethos. They're not trained. The school just takes a step backwards.
GARY LOTRECK, teacher: I moved from Hartford Public High School to a school with a theme of technology. And I was quite successful there. It wasn't disruptive at all.
JOHN TULENKO: Gary Lotreck has taught English in Hartford for 22 years and sees no problem with bumping.
GARY LOTRECK: I have seen people bumped in. I haven't seen anything but people working hard to become part of the school. And they do.
JOHN TULENKO: But the Hartford School District hasn't seen it that way and two years ago asked the state to intervene in the teachers' contract, to change bumping and give principals more power to make staffing decisions on their own.
Do you trust principals to stick to education reasons?
ANDREA JOHNSON: No. No. And that's where seniority comes in. There has to be something that's fair for everybody, and I feel that that is the one. Otherwise, we get favoritism or nepotism. That -- those "tisms" start jumping in there, and that's very frightening.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: I don't think there's any evidence to support that assertion. I'm a principal. I have to think twice about hiring someone I like vs. someone that has a track record of raising results, because ultimately, I will suffer for that kind of behavior.
JOHN TULENKO: Teachers also worry that, without seniority, firing decisions could be influenced by money.
GARY LOTRECK: Veteran teachers cost more. I make more money than a person who has been working only five years in the system. And I wouldn't want to lose my job because of that.
JOHN TULENKO: The financial pressures are real. Hartford is looking for ways to close a $17 million budget shortfall. And it's already let go of 150 teachers in the last three years. Those layoffs were based on seniority. And plenty of teachers were bumped. You would expect it might hurt student performance, but listen to Superintendent Adamowski.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: We have had three consecutive years of the highest gains of any school district in Connecticut. We're the most improved city in the state -- quite a difference for a district that was dead last and was really the poster child for the -- for the achievement gap.
JOHN TULENKO: Well, how come you were able to achieve such -- make such big strides in achievement while all this bumping was going on?
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: Well, we're struggling with this. OK? And I don't want to say that, you know, it's impossible to make strides in achievement. But the point is that this is destabilizing for the schools.
JOHN TULENKO: But the state, which had been asked to intervene in the teachers' contract, didn't think so. Recently, an arbitration panel found no evidence of harm and left bumping and seniority in place.
ANDREA JOHNSON: I don't believe seniority is a problem. But, you know, unfortunately, folks don't like to talk about anything but -- let's just talk about that teacher, because somebody has got to be to blame.
STEVEN ADAMOWSKI: This seniority issue will be determined in a different venue. There's also legislative solution here. It will change. It's a question of when in every state.
JOHN TULENKO: In the last year, several states passed laws to get rid of last-in/first-out and other seniority provisions in teachers' contracts.
Superintendent Adamowski is hoping Connecticut's legislature will follow suit.