LIFO Procedures and Schrödinger’s Financial Crisis

You may have noticed that my policy friend Ross Izard recently published an issue paper calling out nearly half of Colorado’s unionized school districts for maintaining last-in-first-out (LIFO) layoff procedures in their union agreements or negotiated policies. LIFO procedures prioritize seniority over performance when making teacher reduction-in-force (RIF) decisions despite the fact that doing so is both bad policy and against the law.

Just this weekend, Ross used a column in the Denver Post to amplify the message that these districts should fix their layoff procedures. He also addressed the weak arguments thrown up by some districts in defense of their remaining LIFO procedures.

I encourage you to read both the report and the op-ed if you want to learn more about the issue. For today, I’d like to focus in on one of Ross’s arguments specifically. From the column [emphasis added]:

In some cases, these unlawful provisions have simply been overlooked. Many districts do not scrutinize their agreements or policies while renegotiating them. However, a number of the districts have attempted to justify the continued presence of LIFO systems using two primary arguments. First, that they have “elected not to” follow the law because they have not recently conducted layoffs and do not anticipate doing so in the near future. And second, that the continued existence of these LIFO procedures is acceptable because state law supersedes district union agreements. These arguments fail to pass muster.

The sentence in bold really stands out to me, though not necessarily for the reason you might expect. Ross goes on to argue that laws should be applied equally across districts, and that these districts deserve no special treatment.  That’s definitely true More interesting to me, however, is this angle:

The LIFO issue presents an opportunity for school districts to engage in the type of responsible, forward-thinking governance citizens expect. There is no compelling reason to wait until a volatile economy once again delivers a financial downturn to address the problem. And, if these same districts’ perpetual warnings about dire funding shortfalls are any indication, one must assume that the specter of hard financial decisions looms larger than they now argue. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This paragraph captures my thoughts on the response to the paper from some school districts and members of the media. Not even ten years after the Great Recession, these districts practically scoff at the notion that layoffs are something they will ever have to think about again. But how does that square with the constant warning cries about lack of funding?

Many of these same districts and their allies have been wringing their hands over money for years.  From letters to “outreach efforts” that look a lot like advocacy work to tax increase measures and other initiatives aimed at increasing funding for public education, many districts have not been shy about highlighting the need for “adequate” funding and the elimination of the negative factor.

These conversations are important and full of nuance—nuance that raises serious questions about whether the statistics used are fully accurate and whether additional funding can actually serve as some sort of educational panacea (spoiler alert: probably not). For today, though, let’s leave those details alone. Instead, let’s just pay attention to what we often hear:  Districts are being forced to work on shoestring budgets that leave them on the perpetual verge of financial catastrophe.

That same sense of impending financial doom appears to be entirely absent in the layoff conversation. Told that they should have lawful layoff procedures in place to protect both students and great teachers, these supposedly cash-strapped districts abandon their previous statements and shift the argument 180 degrees. Now, it turns out, layoffs are “exceedingly rare” and districts are so financially stable that it’s laughable to even imply they might one day have to cut teaching staff. Is your head spinning yet?

I can’t help but be reminded of Schrödinger’s cat. This famous thought experiment gets into fancy stuff like quantum mechanics and quantum superimposition, but I won’t bore you with all that. The important thing is that Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger highlighted a flaw in a particular theory by asking whether a cat can be simultaneously alive and dead inside a steel box that denies direct observation of said cat. The short and obvious answer is no. The longer, more complicated answer is something I’ll leave you to ponder on your own time.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. Just like we can’t directly observe Schrödinger’s cat inside the steel box, we too often can’t see the detailed inner workings of districts’ finance systems. Now we’re being asked to accept a line of argument holding that inside that black box, school districts are simultaneously completely broke and so flush with cash that they don’t even need to have legal layoff policies on the books. As is the case with the cat that is both alive and dead, basic common sense tells us this cannot be accurate. So, which one is it?

Don’t worry. You don’t have to answer that question, and neither do they. The easy solution here is for these school districts to stop engaging in contradictory spin and change their negotiated agreements or policies at the earliest opportunity. Unlike other collective bargaining reforms, these changes don’t even need to be contentious because state law requires that they be made. And, to top it all off, Ross’s paper provides a model RIF policy school districts can use should they not want to go through the trouble of writing a new one. Talk about convenience!

So please, let’s stop making excuses and start making the needed changes. I never really liked cats, anyway.