June 15th, 2012
03:57 PM ET

Overheard on CNN.com: Readers debate unions, seniority after Teacher of Year's ouster

Editor's note: This post is part of the Overheard on CNN.com series, a regular feature that examines interesting comments and thought-provoking conversations posted by the community.

Thousands of teaching positions have reportedly been lost in the last month, but one of those layoffs has sparked a lively dialogue among CNN.com's readers.

In May, the Sacramento City Unified School District in California handed a pink slip to Michelle Apperson, a sixth-grade teacher at Sutterville Elementary. Apperson was gracious about the job loss, telling CNN affiliate KXTV, "It hurts on a personal level because I really love what I do ... But professionally, politically, I get why it happens."

Many were not so accepting of the decision. Why? Because Apperson was not a newbie, nor had her performance been called into question. In fact, she had taught at Sutterville for nine years and recently was selected Teacher of the Year for the entire district.

After her ouster, one student wrote a letter, according to KXTV, that began: "Dear Ms. Apperson, I will miss you dearly. I will never forget you! You are the best teacher ever. I am very lucky that you are my teacher!"

The district's decision came amid a $43 million budget shortfall, which forced Sacramento schools to slash its workforce. The layoffs were based on seniority, per state law, and a district spokesman said that while the situation was unfortunate, "It's another sign of how education's funding really needs an overhaul."

A woman identifying herself as the ousted teacher commented that she sympathized with district's plight:

Apperson: Wow! I am glad that this article stirred emotion from people. In my hometown, I did the original interview to bring awareness to two main topics – children are affected when we cut education, and in CA we can make a difference as citizens to vote for education. 25 percent of my school's staff got pink slips. They are good people who work hard for kids. I have taught for 13 years, 9 in this district. My district is trying hard to make ends meet, they do not want to hurt kids. The union is trying hard to protect good teachers at school doing what's right. My perspective and that of the reporter was to shed light on the subject and stir awareness. Thank you, for talking about education and kids. I do not know the answer to any of it, but I do know that being named Teacher of the Year in my school district is a great honor and I am humbled.

One reader said the reason for the firings was simple and compared the situation to that faced by many business during the economic crisis:

BD: The fact that we are firing teachers rather than hiring them as a means to deal with the current economic climate is the saddest fact of all. It's no different than a bankrupt business selling off its physical assets.

Many readers chose to home in on the teacher unions, whether it was to blast them or laud them. During the back and forth, one purported teacher claimed Sacramento had no choice:

nopenotbuyingit: Willing to bet this is a media ploy on behalf of the "poor mistreated union teachers." What better way to spark outrage than to fire/lay off the "teacher of the year." Sorry, no sympathy ... manage your $$ better and you can keep the good ones.

12yearteacher: Without a union, the "Good" teachers would be the cheap teachers if the districts had their way.

JonPeter: The outrage should be seniority over quality and a system that supports that notion, including the unions.

12yearteacher: There is no easy fix for this issue. If we go on performance based or "merit pay," it's based on test scores. The majority of my students have a learning disability of some form and, therefore, their test scores will be lower simply because of their differences. I've won multiple awards from the community and my students, but if we go to performance-based evaluations, I would be fired in a heartbeat! Seniority, as unfair as it may seem, is the only way to make things fair when budgets get tight!

pablo: Good teachers lose their jobs all the time because of union seniority rules and tenure. The unproductive and lazy who have been there the longest benefit from such rules.

bpuharic: And in non-union states they lose them for politics, personalities, etc. Non-union states generally have worse educational results than unionized states.

jlaud: The problem is clear. The teacher unions don't care about performance, period. They only look at seniority. They'll throw the baby out with the bath water. The process for teachers need to change and it can't be based solely on test scores.

Some commenters focused their ire on school administrators, saying they rarely hear of them being laid off when times got rough. The conversation then turned to basketball, as many readers questioned the logic of a society that allows athletes to be paid millions, compared to teachers' thousands:

MillieBea: You very rarely hear about administrators being laid off - hmmmmm

hypatia: Of course not. Administrators are the entire problem, and if they'd cull that herd, there would be a lot more $ for the classrooms.

DonJuan1943: We pay a teacher $29,000 per year. We pay a drug-addled, tattooed, Cadillac Escalade-driving professional basketball player/thug $15,000,000 per year. And we cannot afford to rehire the teacher. Excuse me while my head explodes.

You are correct: If people would quit watching basketball, the players would not get paid that much. Maybe we can start broadcasting math class on TV to bring in sponsorship money?

GypgyGal: That's right – 1 professional basketball player is worth over 500 teachers. Such a sad reflection of our society.

Dan: The professional basketball player isn't paid for with taxpayer dollars, DonJuan.

Is your school district experiencing layoffs and budget cuts? What do you think of the changes, and how do you explain them to kids?

Posted by
Filed under: education • Issues • Policy • Politics • Resources • teacher unions • Teachers
soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. ALD

    In my district we are laying off teachers due to seniority. But, then we start hiring them back at the expense of support staff, furlough days (for all), student days (gone from 180 to 175) and freezing teachers on the salary scale. I have taken one for the "team" many times and I am tired of it. I'm sorry there are many teachers losing their jobs but its up to the districts to work these things out. I shouldn't have to keep taking one at 16 years seniority for those who started just 3 or 4 years ago.

    For those of you that think teachers are overpaid, read again xman's schedule and that is pretty indicative of all teachers and then tell me I get paid too much! By the way, I have not gotten a COLA in over 5 years and am now frozen on my pay step (years taught) thanks to budget cuts. In fact, we are often cut because once they figure out how many furlough days we are taking, they cut the salary scale accordingly. This usually happens after the school year begins.

    Oh did I mention that the district also increased our class sizes in K-2nd to 32 students and 4-6th to 34? Not an ideal situation for an appropriate learning environment. I don't know what the answer is, but I am tired of people thinking I am ripping off or taking advantage of the system. Get your facts straight before making such accusations!!

    June 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  2. zzzzz

    Some one need to pay for education if we'll move forward, and reducing teachers, blaming unions, administration is not the way to go. No one is malicious when doing their jobs or trying to provide bad education.
    The only people that hear that want to fire educators and "privatize education" is GOP extremist.
    Education is the biggest equalizer, and many of the great and baby-boomer generation forget that they got their education free and university education (if they chose to) for few dollars. But many think that they were "self-made", when they only took advantage of great opportunities this country was financing and providing to them. GI bill and many educational grants to university and states.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  3. John Geheran

    Just one more reason why unions are obsolete. The era where unions served a purpose is long gone and the sooner unions are reduced to being irrelevant the better off this country will be.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • mike proctor

      this comment is far the dumbest respond I have read so far,the reason this problem is happing across the Country is not the unions fault compelety because the people siging these agreements could have said "NO WAY JOSE" and signed off on a agreement that everyone could agree on. Also if the republicans/tea baggers would signed off on the job bill President Obama gave them last year so millions of people could get back to work some of these problems would go away because the Government would be able help these states and keep these employees working. Agree that the states need to cut back on their spending but will the American people agree with lest??? The problems in this Country are everyone are at fault and not just one group or groups.

      June 19, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • JONATHAN

      That's a great idea! Then we can all work for whatever the few rich people and families that own everything think we should have!

      June 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  4. Abby

    In a country where inequality is out of control in our schools, you'd think our voices would be more for the children!!! We have a political force that wants the electorate to think they are doing something for education- No Child Left Behind, Race For The Top, union breaking and the never ending use of tests to assess all. The sky-rocketing measurable results of these actions has been individuals is making a lot of money and doing lile or nothing for students. Take a close look at those who profit daily from charter schools- those 1%ers who would like to control education. And for those saying it's only one party leading this movement, look twice, as Democrats and Republicans are both guilty. No Child Left Behind was the brainchild of both Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush. Race for the Top, President Obama and secretary of education Arn Duncan's idea allocates money in only 15 states because those states wrote a better grant: the only basis for awarding millions of dollars. Do you even know if your state has this money and if it doesn't shouldn't you be angry that you students are being treated unequally?! Laying off teachers, cutting pensions and drastically cutting state school funding is a drop the bucket compared to the billions (yes, that much) spent on these programs that have made little impact on the education of our children. I believe in even more transparency in education to reveal what is happening all over our country. It starts with a public more concerned and knowledgeable about educating each of our children then in what's the next app they'll put on their I-phone.

    June 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  5. cosmotwo

    What will happen if you do away with the senority system, districts will give the new teacher a few raises and when they start getting higher on the pay scale they will find a reason to get rid of a good teacher because of costs. Happens in retail all the time. Some unions may have gone too far, but they are necessary. If we did not have unions, we would be China.

    June 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  6. spent

    Spent 34 years teaching and during that time not ONE, not ONE administrator was laid off or given a salary reduction.

    June 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  7. cck99352

    Blame the unions for the priority set on "seniority" over actual performance. Yes, blind allegiance to seniority is poor practice – but that is a central tenant of unions.

    June 16, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  8. s

    i don't know what the answer is here. seniority or performance? an interesting idea: ask the kids what teachers they want to keep. of course, it will never happen, but if it COULD, can you imagine the look on the face of one of those old battle axe teachers that no kids ever like when told that the school chose to not keep her on? i think we all have had at least one of these horrible teachers, haven't we? the ones that we say, looking back as adults, : "that woman should never have been allowed near children!". mean, impatient, no imagination, clearly doesn't like kids, why do ppl like this go into teaching? if the kids got a vote, so to speak, how many of these teachers would get rode out of town on a rail, i wonder...

    June 16, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  9. JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

    CALIFORNIA PROBLEMS ???? 5 MILLION ILLEGALS USING THE SERVICES FOR FREE..LIKE FREE HOSPITAL CARE...

    A MEXICAN IS GOING TO ACCUSE ME OF BEING HATEFUL AND RACISTS, I'M A HISPANIC GUY GO AHEAD. IS A FACT.

    June 16, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Pinkflam

      Too bad you never learned English.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  10. Stephen

    Seniority is one consideration, but should never be the sole factor in any layoff in any situation. Performance is an important factor and should figure in the mix. Politics should never figure in, nor should religion, race, or ethnicity. Those making the decisions need to apply reason and intelligence as they consider all relevant factors.

    June 16, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

      IF WE DIDN'T HAVE UNIONS ?????WE ALL WOULD BE COMPETING WITH THE ILLEGALS FOR WORK AT $ 8.25 AN HOUR WITH NO BENEFITS.

      June 16, 2012 at 9:34 am |
      • cck99352

        The unions are the protectors of workers rights – and also the protectors of poor performance, bloated pensions, and maintaining and promoting incompetence in the workplace (because you cannot fire anyone for not doing their jobs – and they know it).

        June 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  11. Jon

    I am a relatively new teacher, but I still support lay-offs that are at least to some degree influenced by seniority. The experience of older teachers makes a big difference. Furthermore, when a young teacher is layed off, he has a better chance of finding another job. When someone sufficiently older is layed off, its usually much more difficult, and if retraining is necessary, near impossible. Lastly, there would be a huge risk that school administrations could start abusing the freedom of laying off whoever they want in order to lay people off before they have a right to their retirement stipend they've been paying into all those years. Its the last possibility that would really scare me.

    June 16, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • cck99352

      Your argument is fallacious. If older workers possess such valuable experience, then they should be more marketable and "retraining" should not be necessary.

      People have trouble finding jobs when their skill sets are not valued by employers. If one does not possess the requisite skills, then they should not be retained.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  12. JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

    IF IT HAPPENED IN CALIFORNIA ?? I BET YOU THAT THEY WANT HISPANIC TEACHERS OVER WHITE TEACHER. I BET YOU .IT SMELLS LIKE RACE IS THE CASE HERE ??

    June 16, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  13. JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

    THE QUESTION THAT I HAVE IS , IS THE SCHOOL BECOMING MORE HISPANICS ?? WAS HER FIRING DO TO THE SCHOOL WANTING TO HIRE HISPANIC TEACHER ??

    June 16, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  14. JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

    SENIORITY SHOULD MATTER...WHY LAY OFF A TEACHER WHO BEEN WITH SCHOOL LONGER ?? WHY KEEP A ROOKIE OVER A AN TIMER ?

    June 16, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  15. herp a derp de doo

    Sure it sucks that the good teachers get fired due to seniority. But trying to evaluate teachers is comparing apples to oranges. And you run into what criteria makes a teacher good? Is it the students opinions, parents, other teachers, admin??? You can't base it off of test scores.

    There is one thing I do want to point out. Teachers who complain about their pay need a good swift kick to the head. All school districts post their payscales. It is something easy to look up. You know in advance what you are going to be paid and should have thought of that before deciding to be a teacher.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • jay

      What if you had to take the teaching job offered because your husband got a job in that town? Women, in general, make 77 cents on the dollar. In addition to that, teacher salaries are based on a second income wage earner. Teacher salaries have not kept pace with other job professions. Also, here is also a limited career ladder- 30 teachers to 1 principal. As a whole, teachers are underpaid in some areas and over paid in other areas. Maybe the pay structure of the profession needs to change,

      June 16, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • xman

      If you want teachers to stop griping about pay, benefits, class sizes, policies made by people who have no idea what its like to teach, inflated salaries for administrative and district employees, layoffs because the states can't manage their money, parents who are not held accountable for their kids' behavior, budget reduction days, lack of updated technology and materials, etc, etc,...then fix the problems and we'll stop telling you about them.

      Better yet, give us the respect we have earned and deserve by putting educators in charge of education, give us the time and resources, and we'll gladly and effectively fix the problems ourselves.

      We don't do this for the money. If we were greedy we wouldn't be teachers. We just want to graduate from college and hold a job that doesn't qualify us for WIC and food stamps.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  16. Vin

    I feel polite schrewdness in BOW.

    June 15, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  17. larry5

    Isn't the idea of a union or government job is to do your time. You're not expected to be excellent or different, just do your time. Accept that or get a real job.

    June 15, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • xman

      Right, because teaching isn't a real job...

      I really don't get up at 5:30am and work for free 1-2 hours per day. I really don't spend my time planning, teaching, assessing, meetings, parent phone calls, paperwork, etc. I really don't deserve to get paid for my meaningless work because, hey...I just sit around and hand out worksheets all day...

      Whatever...you obviously have no idea what it is like to be a public educator. You should run for your local school board...you'll fit right in.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:36 am |
      • ObammySucks

        boo flippin hoo – don't like your industry? feel free to acquire some new in-demand skills

        June 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  18. hopemac

    Without unions and a seniority list, a "good teacher" would be a new teacher who makes very little. Years ago I used to hear a story about two town school districts that yearly, would fire all second year teachers. This way, these teachers would not be granted tenure. The school districts would do this for no other reason other than hiring new teachers would allow the districts to pay rock bottom wages. The teachers, who lived and worked in these communities, would go to the district next door and get jobs. Then in two more years, they would be let go again and return to the original district, only at new teacher wages. What happened, basically, was that the two districts traded teachers every two years. These teachers could not afford to buy houses or pay off their students loans and raising a family was out of the question. They would find that they could not live on these wages and go elsewhere, after gaining some of the skills of seasoned teachers. This would leave the districts with less skilled teachers and consequently, a school system with a poor outcome.
    School districts would gladly fire teachers who made too much regardless of their quality.

    June 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • hyprofit

      Sorry. I just don't believe that this really happened. I would go as far as saying that this story is a crock of "a'hem" $&%(#!. I happen to live in Wiscosin. I also happen to be in a public sector union. Right now, the school district where my kids go to school has a surplus and actually hired teachers this year. If Sacramento doesn't want to hold onto it's teacher of the year, send her to Wisconsin. We'll take her. The teaching jobs we lost to layoffs, etc are coming back in droves and, despite what the negative nancies out there will say, pay and benefits are pretty good.

      Maybe California could ask it's administrators to do some actual work and come up with criteria for what qualifies as good teaching. Perhaps then, teachers could focus on best practices because they're well led. Our school administrators could actually LEAD instead of supervise and manage... Wouldn't that be novel?

      June 16, 2012 at 4:51 am |
    • Augie

      well idk where your from but teachers in NY start out at 45,000 a year when the average state wage is low 30's a year – not saying this is right because it is a obviously a very rare case that went on but i just dont buy the statement that they cant raise there kids and pay for there house etc when there starting out almost 15,000 dollars more than the average worker....dont live beyond your means is what my parents always told me, plus they only work 180 days a year and are off all summer....get a 2nd job like the rest of the country.......and by the way private school dont have unions and or tenure and those schools dont fire teachers based on there pay......just saying

      June 16, 2012 at 7:24 am |
      • xman

        They don't lay off becuase they are properly funded...

        And the starting salary is higher because of the higher cost of living there. I started at 28K, and after 7 years I'm at a whopping 32K. And we don't have summers off; we work on our own time...all of us. And many of us do have second jobs. And we are not paid for those "days off". And you need to walk a few hundred miles in our shoes before discounting what we do.

        June 16, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  19. Jim Stirnaman

    Seniority can be one of the criteria used but not the only, and not the most important, for determining layoffs. If private business only used seniority, we'd be out of business as a country.

    June 15, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • samantha

      We are telling our children that an education is the most important thing they can do for their future and then we cut the budget to education every year. I do think all states should get rid of tenure for teachers. They should have a job and keep a job based on performance......and sadly budget. California is an expensive state to live in and in dire financial straits.

      June 15, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
      • JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

        SENDING YOUR KIDS TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS TODAY IS A WASTE OF TIME. YOU ARE BETTER OFF TEACHING THEM WHAT YOU KNOW YOURSELF. IF YOU LIVE IN A UPPER CLASS TOWN ? PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE GREAT, BUT IF YOU LIVE IN A POOR TOWN ? GET 2 JOBS WORK YOUR BUTT OFF AND SEND YOUR KIDS TO A PRIVATE SCHOOL....

        SCHOOLS IN POOR TOWNS ARE INFESTED WITH GANGS–DRUGS-OVER CROWDED, ROWDY KIDS.....

        June 16, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • JOSE (@MARINEUSMC0311)

      SENIORITY MUST BE PROTECTED.. WHY ??? MOST SCHOOLS ARE BECOMING MORE HISPANIC-WHAT IF THEY WANT WHITE TEACHER OUT TO MAKE ROOM FOR HISPANIC TEACHERS ??? RACE INVOLVE HERE ??? ANYONE KNOW ?

      BY THE WAY I'M A HISPANIC GUY , SO NO REASON TO ACCUSE ME OF BEING RACISTS HERE..I'M TRYING TO GET TO THE TRUTH HERE. WAS RACE A REASON FOR HER GETTING FIRED ?

      June 16, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  20. Kris

    In California, the facts are that the state has been playing fast and loose with education funding. In a time of increasing costs, they have cut district budgets in excess of 20% then are slowing down the cash flow to those same districts. How can we survive these cuts? In my small district, we have lost many support staff over the last five years and now it is time to hit the teaching staff. The state needs to get its act together for education funding, give us what is promised on time and get its own house in order so we can continue to provide a quality education to our children.

    June 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm |