NEA-Alaska sues Haines, Hoonah over layoffs

Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2003

HAINES (AP) The state teachers union has sued the Haines and Hoonah school districts, claiming their layoffs of tenured teachers was improper.

NEA-Alaska and the Haines Education Association claim the districts funding loss for next year is not enough to start laying off tenured teachers. They're seeking an injunction to halt the layoffs.

NEA-Alaska President Rich Kronberg said tenured teachers can be laid off because of poor performance or a decline in student enrollment. The former is not a consideration and the latter has not happened, he said.

''There's no decline,'' he said. ''There's an anticipated decline.''

Losing the case would set a dangerous precedent in the state, he said, because districts could dump teachers based on projections of enrollment.

Union attorney Paul Grant wrote in the lawsuit that the layoff plans are invalid.

''They terminate far more teachers than is necessary to respond to the alleged reduction in funding,'' Grant said. A 3 percent drop in funding is required by law before a layoff plan can be developed, he said.

''Haines has not had a 3 percent reduction in its 'basic need' (funding), but in fact is projected to have a decrease of less than .5 percent,'' Grant wrote. ''(State statue) provides that school districts may reduce their staff of tenured teachers only under circumstances related to a decrease in school funding or enrollment.''

The district's response, filed last week, says its basic need funding dropped 12 percent in the last year and will drop more for the upcoming year, which justifies the layoffs.

''The district projects a further decline in enrollment for FY04 of approximately 33 students, as well as corresponding declines in its state and local funding,'' wrote attorney Ann Gifford.

Haines superintendent Woody Wilson told the Chilkat Valley News that the district's finances are in worse shape than the lawsuit alleges.

''I can't, for the life of me, figure out where they got that figure,'' he said of the one-half percent drop claimed by the union.

The district's shaky financial footing probably is a reason the union chose to sue, he said.

''That's why they're picking on Haines and Hoonah. We're broke. If you're the union and you want to win something, you don't pick on Anchorage.''

The four tenured teachers who lost their jobs in Haines were high school teacher Jeanne Menaker, librarian Rhonda Stuart, and elementary teachers Barbara Mark and Jeanne Kitayama. All but Kitayama contested the decision. Two Hoonah teachers are challenging their layoffs.

The union filed a motion for expedited consideration of the request for an injunction, saying the issue has to be resolved quickly before laid-off teachers get too far in planning to move to find work.

''They now desperately need to know whether they have to pack up their belongings, list their homes for sale, uproot their families, and move to other communities in search of work,'' Grant wrote.

That request was denied and the motion for an injunction will be heard June 30.

The lawsuit claims the layoffs could result in irreparable harm, including moving costs, disruption of families, damage to professional reputation and emotional distress.

The district also questioned the authority of teachers' unions to sue on behalf of individual members.

''The allegedly irreparable injuries described by plaintiffs are highly specific and peculiar to the individual teachers concerned, not injuries sustained by plaintiff's membership generally.''

Most Haines Education Association members apparently had no hand in the decision to sue. Union Vice President Leigh Horner said she didn't know why her group was listed as a plaintiff.

Aside from the legal considerations, Kronberg said, the layoffs are bad public policy. They would take away the one thing schools provide that is shown to make a difference in the quality of children's education teachers as noted in President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, he said.

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