Proposed changes to the reduction-in-force (RIF) policies for Mobile County Public Schools have the area’s largest teachers union urging its members to keep an eye out for potential layoffs, despite the school district’s claims to the contrary.

A school board can declare a RIF in cases where extreme circumstances or a financial emergency “requires the reduction of personnel through contract terminations.” When such a situation occurs, factors such as employee tenure do not apply — leaving only the system’s RIF policy to guide decisions about which teachers could be laid off.

Currently, MCPSS is considering implementing changes to its RIF policies, and the board has already scheduled two public hearings regarding the proposed changes — at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, and on Monday, Dec. 12 at 6 p.m.

Alabama Education Association.

Alabama Education Association.

However, a proposed change to a section addressing how to proceed when considering more than one tenured employee for dismissal has already caught the attention of the Alabama Education Association because it would reduce the focus on seniority that has guided layoffs in the past.

While the seniority of tenured employees would still be considered, the proposed policy changes would place more emphasis on an employee’s highly qualified status, certification, experience and their effectiveness (determined in prior performance evaluations).

“Seniority would still be a factor, but they’ve moved it all the way to the bottom of the list,” AEA Rep. Jesse McDaniel said. “If you ever had to engage this policy, by the time you got through those four other factors, you’d have already determined who’s going to be laid off.”

Additionally, the proposal would eliminate all of the factors that were previously considered when laying off non-tenured employees, replacing multiple passages with “non-tenured employees do not have any recall or re-employment rights under this policy.”

However, according to MCPSS spokeswoman Rena Philips, all of the proposed changes are only “attempts to bring our policy into compliance with current state law,” and specifically with Alabama’s Students First Act, which took effect in 2011.

The Students First Act limited the options for recourse tenured employees have to appeal a termination and unilaterally eliminated the protections afforded those who are non-tenured.

With that in mind, Philips said a recent review prompted MCPSS attorneys to encourage school board members to “update some things.”

The Mobile County Public School System.

The Mobile County Public School System.

“There is no plan to do a reduction in force at this time, and these changes would only affect non-tenured employees if a RIF ever occurred,” Philips wrote in a statement to local media. “We do review our policies from time to time to make sure they are in compliance with current state law, which is what we are considering doing here.”

McDaniel, however, strongly rejected the idea that a five-year-old law was motivating the proposed changes. He went on to accuse MCPSS of trying to “sneak [the new RIF policies] in” by proposing them at the end of the semester and failing to properly inform system employees.

“If this was such a critical compliance issue, why’d they wait five years to do it? No, they’re trying to make it easier to eliminate people they don’t like, and that’s all this is about,” McDaniel said. “It also begs the question, ‘Is the school system planning to lay people off?’ That’s what I’d be worried about if I was a bus driver or a teacher — I’d be worried about what’s next.”

While Philips said MCPSS has no plans to lay off any employees “at this time,” McDaniel suggested there have already been “clues and indications” from the system suggesting it “would consider eliminating jobs” by outsourcing certain paraprofessional positions to a private company.

McDaniel was referring to the Funding Balance Plan MCPSS submitted to the state in May of this year that contained a number of “suggestions” of how the school system could rebuild its reserve funding to the equivalent of one month’s operational cost as required by the Alabama State Department of Education.

Though it was listed on the final page under “other suggestions,” the funding balance plan does mention as a possible cost-saving measure “adjustments to special education personnel” that include utilizing a talent management company along with traditional in-house services.

As for the timing of the proposed changes, Philips said the only motivation to adjust the RIF policy now was a recommendation from the board’s attorney. She also said the time, date and location of both of the upcoming public hearings would be published on the MCPSS website.

“Jesse McDaniel knows about the hearings,” Philips wrote. “He and anyone from the AEA or in the public have a right to voice their concerns at those hearings.”

McDaniel said AEA would have representatives at both meetings because, according to him, the organization does not believe a school system should “penalize people for giving more years of their lives to public education than others.”

“It’s damaging to morale, and it’s foolish in an environment where you have a teacher shortage already. If they go through with this, they’re going to have a lot of angry career educators,” McDaniel said. “Plus, If they were to end up letting 20-year teachers go while retaining freshmen right out of college, I would not be surprised if you start seeing some age discrimination lawsuits popping up.”

Over the past few days, both the school system and the AEA have sharpened their rhetoric. On Dec. 7, a number of employees expressed an objection to the proposed changes to the MCPSS RIF policy, though a decision about their implementation still hasn’t been made by the board.

Philips has also accused McDaniel and the AEA of “exaggerating” and “misleading” teachers in the press about the policies as well as the school board’s intentions. On Wednesday, a email message from the central office when out to all MCPSS employees to address what was descried as “erroneous information.”

You can read that message in its entirety below:

First, we would like to assure MCPSS employees that there are no plans and no reason for a Reduction in Force.

From time to time, the system must revisit this and other policies to make sure they align with changing state and federal laws. MCPSS is considering updating the RIF policy to align with the Students First Act and also adding a policy on Data Governance to comply with federal law.

The board has been unwavering in maintaining staffing in the schools and is committed to sustaining employment throughout the system. It is regrettable that misinformation has been shared that may cause employees to worry about their employment when there is no cause for concern.

There has been no discussion of a Reduction in Force or outsourcing any jobs that are currently filled. A Reduction in Force is a rarely used plan that school systems must have on file in case of financial need.

Proposed changes to MCPSS’s policy would mostly apply to non-tenured employees, who would be reassigned or non-renewed prior to tenured employees. In the case of tenured employees, consideration would be given to employees who are certified in their position, who are effective as determined by the three most recent performance evaluations, who have professional education and work experience related to their job, and who have seniority.

As with all proposed policy changes, the Board of School Commissioners is hosting two public hearings, which have been publicized on the district’s website and Facebook page. A second hearing will be held in the Board Room at the MCPSS Central Office on Monday, Dec. 12, at 6 p.m. Employees and anyone interested in public education are invited to attend the hearings and address the board.

Following the first public hearing, as is our general practice, the proposal will be emailed to employees along with a request for written feedback to be submitted. All oral and written comments will be carefully reviewed and it will then be determined if the policies will be brought forward for board consideration and approval.

Notice will be provided if the policies are placed on a board agenda later in the school year.

Updated on Dec. 8, at 10:15 a.m., to include the message sent to MCPSS employees regarding proposed changes to the system’s reduction in force policies and their coverage in the press.