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Teachers union taking ballot question to court

Initiative links job evaluations, layoffs

The state’s largest teachers union plans to file a lawsuit against the state today for allowing a ballot initiative that would radically alter job protection for teachers in Massachusetts public schools to move forward.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association contends that the ballot initiative fails to meet constitutional muster and should have never been certified last summer by Attorney General Martha Coakley, according to a copy of the complaint that is expected to be filed in the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

A centerpiece of the ballot initiative would make a teacher’s performance, rather than years of service, the primary factor in deciding who should be laid off. To aid in that effort, the initiative would mandate a uniform system of evaluating teachers across the state - a process typically negotiated between unions and school districts.

The initiative, roughly four pages long, aims to bolster teacher quality, according to its proponents.

But the head of the teachers union said this a complex issue that cannot be neatly boiled down to one ballot question.

“This is not a simple yes or no ballot question, like asking whether you should pay an extra nickel on a bottle return,’’ said Paul Toner, president of the association, which represents teacher unions in Springfield and most Boston suburbs. “There are so many moving parts to this initiative that no voter will be able to understand it in a short period of time.’’

The complaint says the initiative comes up short constitutionally because it is too broad - involving unrelated issues - and would restrict the court’s power to review arbitration cases related to teacher terminations. The complaint also says that a summary of the ballot initiative prepared by the attorney general’s office violates the constitution because it is not concise and “fails to inform voters of the magnitude of the substantive and procedural changes to existing law that would result from the petition’s enactment.’’

The lawsuit seeks to nullify Coakley’s certification of the ballot initiative and bar Secretary of State William F. Galvin from placing it on ballots this November. Both Coakley and Galvin are named as defendants.

Brad Puffer, a Coakley spokesman, defended the certification process.

“We make our decision to certify ballot initiatives based purely on the facts and the law and without regard to the attorney general’s policy view on the issue,’’ Puffer said. “As we do with all petition decisions we work cooperatively with parties who wish to challenge our rulings. The most important thing is to get the right result.’’

Jason Williams, Massachusetts executive director for Stand for Children, the nonprofit education advocacy organization that is leading the ballot initiative, said he was not surprised by the lawsuit because the union had indicated that it was exploring legal action.

“We believe the attorney general did her due diligence and made the right decision in moving the ballot initiative forward,’’ Williams said.

The ballot initiative has faced opposition from teachers unions, some superintendents, local school committee members, and the state’s education secretary, Paul Reville.

Opponents argue the initiative in many ways is redundant because the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed regulations last June to increase the rigor of teacher evaluations by tying performance to student achievement. Under the regulations, teachers with unsatisfactory evaluations who fail to improve during a school year could face termination.

The teachers association played a key role in developing the regulations.

But Stand for Children was dissatisfied that the board did not mandate that districts adopt the new system and launched the ballot initiative about a month later. The ballot initiative is now in the Legislature, the next step in the lengthy process after organizers collected signatures from a minimum of 3 percent of state voters, 68,911.

The teachers association is filing the lawsuit on behalf of three state teachers of the year, a Scituate School Committee member, a teacher evaluation expert, and the president of the Massachusetts Parents Association, who are named as plaintiffs.

“I believe in local decision-making,’’ Richard Hebert, the Scituate School Committee member, said in a statement. “I believe in letting towns and their teachers hammer out the guidelines for reducing staff. This one-size-fits-all approach is dangerous and simplistic and infringes on the autonomy of towns and ignores the special circumstances each community faces.’’

The association is basing part of the lawsuit on a successful legal challenge of a 2006 ballot initiative effort that sought to outlaw greyhound racing in Massachusetts and create tougher penalties for abuse and neglect of dogs.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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