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Originally published Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Shake-up in schools coming soon

Maybe it was brought on by lean times. Or maybe long-simmering angst about the state of Seattle schools is finally boiling over on its own...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Maybe it was brought on by lean times. Or maybe long-simmering angst about the state of Seattle schools is finally boiling over on its own.

But the decision this month to lay off 165 of Seattle schools' newest teachers in a "last hired, first fired" manner has got some of liberal Seattle suddenly sounding more like a conservative red state.

More than 600 school parents have signed an online petition, at supportgreatteachers.com, that calls out the teachers union for causing "great distress and upheaval" in the schools. At issue is the policy of choosing who gets laid off solely by seniority.

"Wake up and see how union refusal to consider merit is damaging the profession and our kids," wrote one parent.

"We want the best teachers, not the oldest, teaching our kids," wrote another.

"Teacher unions are an anachronism," said another.

The organizers of the petition are a group of parents called Community and Parents for Public Schools. They agree what they're doing is very un-Seattle.

They're fed up with calcified bureaucracy. They see how schools in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are being shaken up by market-oriented approaches. Such as charter schools. But in Seattle, no politician seems willing to question the system. So it is left to parents.

"I am so not a Republican," laughed Andrew Kwatinetz, vice president of the group. He's an ex-Microsoftie with two kids in Seattle Public Schools. "I think what we are is extremely frustrated about policies that make little sense that are eroding the quality of the schools."

The latest issue — the last-hired, first-fired seniority policy — has become a hot button because many schools are set to lose two or three of their youngest, most energetic teachers.

"We're asking that they apply some judgment," Kwatinetz said. "The blanket way they do it now is kind of an insult to our intelligence as parents."

It's true that cutting from the bottom can lop off the most promising talent. On the plus side it can be the most compassionate system in that it keeps managers from tossing on the street 60-year-olds who are not quite ready to retire.

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Even at ruthless, performance-based Microsoft, the recent rounds of layoffs were bashed for flushing too much young talent. And for being dominated more by office politics than merit.

I don't have some magic solution for how to do school layoffs. Neither do the petition organizers. What's interesting to me about this dust-up is that it feels like something is coming to a head in Seattle schools. A parent-led movement that's different from what we've seen before. Ready to poke at sacred cows. Unions and management alike.

When was the last time in Seattle the debate included people saying things like this?

"I am a big union supporter and have never in my life crossed a picket line so it pains me to sign a petition the union may not support but in this case, the quality of schools is more important than the labor movement."

Or this?

"These kind of union contracts are the past, not our future."

Kwatinetz noted the new president has said he'll direct education spending to cities that are open to these sorts of reforms.

"The spirit of this is coming down from the top," he said. "Wouldn't it be silly if Seattle didn't at least have this debate?"

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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