Qorsho Hassan, a Somali-American educator who formerly taught fifth-grade at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville, lost her job to budget cuts the same month she landed a finalist's spot in the prestigious Minnesota Teacher of the Year award program this spring.
There's an irony in that, she said, but it's also a call to "deep introspection" and asking why measures to attract teachers of color to Minnesota schools haven't been met with effective measures to retain them.
Over 95% of teachers in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District are white, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, but white children represent less than 39% of the district students.
Advocates of last in, first out (LIFO) layoff procedures say an objective, predictable system is needed to protect the most experienced, qualified educators from being laid-off simply because they're paid the most.
Burnsville Education Association President Wendy Drugge said seniority-based layoff procedures also allow teachers to plan ahead for themselves and their families.
Opponents of LIFO say the procedure lacks a meaningful way to keep the best educators in schools. Some also say the widespread use of seniority or licensure-based layoff procedures further systemic racism in education.
Josh Crosson, the executive director of EdAllies, said newly-hired teachers represent a more diverse group of educators. Therefore, layoff policies based on seniority disproportionately harm teachers of color, and also the underserved student populations who disproportionately attend schools impacted by layoffs.
"We are literally taking teachers of color and taking them away to benefit seniority over what students need," he said. "That's not equity and that's not racial justice in our education system."
Hassan's position wasn't directly eliminated when the staffing cuts arrived in April, but a Gideon Pond teacher with greater seniority was able to retain a job by stepping into Hassan's. She declined an offer to remain in the district in a non-classroom role, and instead accepted a job teaching fourth grade at Echo Park Elementary in a neighboring school district.
"Teachers of color are not working in spaces they should be," Hassan said, adding approximately half of the students at Gideon Pond are Black or African American.
Lexie Wills, a biracial teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage, also lost her job due to budget cuts this spring. Last year, she earned an Innovative Teacher of the Year designation in the district's Community of Excellence Awards. Unlike Hassan, there were no other positions within the district offered to her, and she also took a new job at Echo Park.
State data reports all licensed teaching staff is white at Hidden Valley except for Wills and one Asian educator. However, over 40% of students at Hidden Valley are Hispanic or Latino and over 32% are Black or African American.
Superintendent Theresa Battle said injustice and racism created the problem schools are grappling with, and it will require holistic solutions to better the education system for all students and staff.
"Representation matters, absolutely," she said, adding each factor that effects the outcome of that goal needs to be considered.
With state and federal funding sources falling behind inflation, the district faced a $5 million gap this spring to cover per-student expenses.
While neither Hassan or Wills had received tenure, this year's staffing cuts were deep enough to also impact tenured staff members.
Battle said attracting and retaining "the best and brightest" employees, and also having a staff that reflects the diversity of students, are top district values. You can have equity and excellence both, she said.
As for LIFO, Battle said there's no cut and dried answer to whether or not she supports the policy. Experience does matter, she said, but fresh eyes and new ways of thinking do, too.
Drugge, the teacher's union president, emphasized that district officials ultimately make the budgetary and personnel decisions that result in teacher layoffs.
"I believe that the school district has the tools right now with the current (layoff procedure) language to retain teachers of color," she said.
In Burnsville High School's Future Teachers of America Club, teachers mentor a diverse group of Burnsville High School students in the hopes that they'll one day return to the district as educators, Drugge said.
However, Hassan, Wills and Crosson all said systemic changes are needed for efforts to attract and retain educators of color to be successful.
"No person is going to want to become a teacher when they are going to be cut every single year," Wills said. This spring marked her third consecutive year being released from a teaching job at Hidden Valley — only this time, she wasn't offered a chance to come back.
Wills and Hassan, who've taught for seven and eight years respectively, say they face another full year of uncertainty before they'll receive tenured status having each completed three full years in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage.
Minnesota law requires a teacher spend three consecutive years in a single district before receiving tenure. One full probationary year is mandated in each district the teacher works in thereafter.
EdAllies' stated mission is to ensure historically underserved student populations are well served in the public education system.
Crosson, the organization's director, helped design Minnesota's new teacher licensing system, which was enacted in 2018. He said the change helped increase the number of teachers of color working in Minnesota from around 4% of all educators to over 6%.
Crosson said Minnesota's homogenous teaching force is a result of the state's notoriously Minnesota-exclusive licensing requirements of the past.
The new system created four tiers of teaching licenses. The Tier 3 and Tier 4 licenses have Minnesota-specific education or work experience requirements. Tier 1 and Tier 2 licenses have lighter requirements, which remove some systemic barriers for those entering the profession.
While the tiered system was designed to create new pathways into teaching, he said some labor contracts use the tiers to systemically push teachers of color out of the profession.
In the labor contract between the Burnsville district and the teacher's union, Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers are the first to be laid off regardless of seniority. LIFO only applies to Tier 3 and Tier 4 teachers, which included Hassan and Wills.
But Crosson said around 25% of teachers of color in Minnesota are working with a Tier 1 or Tier 2 license, whereas the percentage sits around 10% for white educators.
He said union contracts across Minnesota are not grounded in race equity or justice, but research shows the majority of educators support layoff policies with multiple measures.
"This isn't a two-sided conversation," he said. "It's not the employer — the school district — versus the union. Where are the students, the families, where are they as part of this conversation?"
Crosson said he believes the next step forward would be for the Legislature to ban harmful layoff policies.
"We as a state are in a position to say LIFO is harmful to underserved students and it needs to go," he said, adding a statewide ban would inspire creativity and help design new procedures.
In 2018, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district contract negotiators pushed to create a new system for conducting teacher layoffs that would dismiss a teacher with a disciplinary action in their file before using a seniority-based procedure. This proposal was ultimately struck down after over a year of negotiations with the teacher's union.
Once an agreement was reached, former Board of Education Director Bob VandenBoom cast the lone vote against the contract. He said the seniority-based layoff procedure upheld the status quo and leaves administration without “mechanisms to approve accountability or retain our best teachers.”
"If we truly cared about improving student outcomes, now is a good time to think and do things differently,” he said. “Contract issues should have been centered on doing what’s best for the students, not on establishing iron-clad guarantees of future employment for the adults."
Calling for protections
Before her Teacher of the Year nomination, Hassan received a national award for her work relating to equity and inclusion from Kinect Education Group.
“Qorsho is a game changing educator,” Gideon Pond Principal Chris Bellmont said in a district news release announcing the news last year. “She is able to partner with families, students, and colleagues in creating a sustained, extraordinary trajectory for student academic and social growth. There is no limit to the positive impact Qorsho will have on students and our entire community.”
As Hassan leaves the district, she said she hopes her voice made an impact, and that conversations she and other staff members of color started will continue.
She said most conversations on the topic focus on education funding, however, because of systemic racism and white supremacy in education, legislation is needed to protect teachers of color from disproportionately facing job losses.
"The response is always spending. It’s always based-on money," she said. "It’s based-on how teachers, including black teachers who are being released, can advocate for more funding. I think that’s really problematic."
Both Hassan and Wills said they sometimes feel tokenized by an education system that uplifts their work but hasn't found a way to retain them.
"It's heartbreaking but I'm hoping it's a lesson learned for everything," Hassan said.