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The best decisions for our students are made closest to the schoolhouse. It’s a principle few would disagree with. In practice, however, things are not always so simple. Most board members would agree that too often their hands are tied by state and federal requirements and constraints over finances.

Unfortunately, we may be entering an era where a particularly troublesome constraint—New Jersey’s strict seniority process—will prevent a growing number of school boards from implementing personnel decisions that would be in the best interest of our students. Current statute and regulation make length of service (“last in, first out” or LIFO)—and not job performance—the controlling factor when determining which tenured teachers remain on staff following a reduction in force. This requirement ties school leaders’ hands in retaining the best qualified staff members.

Because of enrollment trends, the issue may become magnified for many communities.

The U.S. Department of Education projects that statewide high school enrollment will drop by over 3 percent through 2024. The impact of that statewide decline will vary among communities. Some regions have already experienced steep declines. For example, in the ten-year period ending in 2014-2015, Sussex County’s public school enrollment decreased by almost 24 percent. Other counties with decreases in excess of 10 percent include Cape May, Hunterdon, and Warren.

These enrollment trends come on top of financial realities—flat state aid, the 2% tax levy cap, and inadequate state support for initiatives, such as PARCC and the AchieveNJ Evaluation Process—all of which can also affect staffing.

Recently, the New Jersey School Boards Association issued a survey to assess LIFO’s impact on school district operations. The survey, sent to board presidents and superintendents, is still open for responses. If you have not yet participated in it, please do as soon as possible. Your thoughts will help NJSBA convey information to state leaders. (Contact Frank Belluscio, NJSBA deputy executive director, for information about the survey.)

In 2012, New Jersey reformed the laws governing the acquisition and retention of tenure. LIFO, however, did not change.

In 2013, I wrote a “Reflections” column praising the state’s tenure revisions, but citing the need to take the reforms a step further. A local school board should be able to rely upon criteria such as a staff member’s teaching experience and job performance when implementing a reduction in force. It’s a sound management practice and would help ensure that difficult staffing decisions are made in our students’ best interest.

I concluded my column with this thought: “If we are truthful and sincere about our primary mission to improve student achievement, we must ensure that the people and the process of instruction are top grade.  Elimination of LIFO is the next logical step in fulfilling our commitment to student achievement.”

That belief still stands.

These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at feinsodreflections@njsba.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @DrLarryFeinsod