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Lawsuit Over Tenure Reform

“Teachers union files lawsuit over Michigan Teacher Tenure Act”
by Lori Higgins
Detroit Free Press
March 8, 2012

A local teachers union is challenging aspects of Michigan’s Teacher Tenure Act, saying in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday that a controversial amendment made to the law last summer is unconstitutional.

The amendment barred school districts from using seniority as the determining factor when making layoff decisions — tossing aside traditional “last in, first out” procedures.

The amendment was part of sweeping changes to Michigan’s tenure act. Michael Lee, a Southfield attorney representing the Southfield Education Association, said he believes it is the first time the changes have been challenged in federal court.

The case, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, stems from a dispute in the Southfield Public Schools that began when the district laid off teachers last summer. Lee said the district did not follow its own procedures for recalling teachers — procedures that were put in place following passage of the tenure changes.

That part of the dispute is addressed in a lawsuit the union filed in circuit court last month. The federal lawsuit addresses the broader issue of whether the amendment itself is lawful.

Lee said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized tenure as a property right in cases that go back as far as 1978.

“Once you pass legislation that says ignore tenure and people are laid off as a result, you have taken away that property right, and you have done that without due process,” Lee said.

Ari Adler, spokesman for state House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said the amendment was part of needed changes in tenure laws for teachers. Legislation to enact the changes originated in the House.

“The focus was to do what we could to protect good teachers and ensure a high quality of education for the students,” Adler said. “We were hearing a number of stories where there were young teachers who were outstanding in their profession but were being laid off simply because they did not have the seniority.”

Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union with 157,000 members — said his organization warned lawmakers last summer that “stripping away these collective-bargaining rights … leaves no ability to use the process that’s been used for years to figure out these issues. The only thing these employees can resort to is taking their case to federal court.”

Southfield Public Schools officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.