Seniority rules and teacher transfer rights will remain intact in Oakland Unified this year, despite the superintendent's call for a change.

The recent debate in Oakland has centered on the transfer of displaced teachers -- those whose schools have closed, whose positions have been cut or who are returning from leave. Traditionally, those teachers have chosen their new job from a list of openings for which they are eligible, with the most senior employee having the first pick and principals having little to no say.

Superintendent Tony Smith had hoped to work out a different arrangement in Oakland, in an initiative called "mutual matching," arguing it would lead to better placements and, ultimately, higher student achievement. Teachers would visit prospective schools and list their top choices; school principals would do the same, and the district would make the final placements based on both sets of preferences.

Some teachers welcomed the idea. Others expressed strong objections, or felt the process would be too rushed to put in place for the fall. This week, without the union support it needed, the district acknowledged that it had run out of time.

"Given our inability to reach an agreement on how mutual matching might look, instituting that program for next year is not viable at this point," said the district's spokesman, Troy Flint. "But that doesn't mean we're abandoning the idea."

In Oakland, the issue has particular relevance this year. The district is closing five elementary schools in June, leaving more than 50 general education teachers to find new jobs. At the same time, a number of schools are adding grade levels in the fall, an expansion that will leave them with a substantial number of vacancies.

Brian McMillan is a first-year teacher at Greenleaf, a high-performing elementary school in the East Oakland flatlands that plans to add middle school grades. He believes his school must have a say in who joins the staff. "It's absolutely essential to be bringing on teachers that are aligned to the vision that all students can succeed," he said. "There is no other industry that hires people this way."

While such union work rules remain in place at most Bay Area districts, the Los Angeles teachers union and district recently agreed to give local schools more control over hiring and other operations. Other states, including Colorado, have passed legislation that allows a teacher to be assigned to a new school only with the approval of that teacher and the principal.

Though Oakland teachers were split on the issue, the union's leadership opposed the change, saying it would make a bad situation worse for teachers already grappling with their schools' closings. "We are not interested in giving away seniority rights for teachers who are being displaced through no fault of their own," said Betty Olson-Jones, the union president.

Still, the "priority placement" process, as it's known, will see some changes. Olson-Jones said the school district has agreed to give the displaced teachers time to visit prospective schools, and it plans to hold a "school showcase" event this spring for teachers to meet school representatives, allowing them to make more informed decisions. Also, she said, schools will pay the average OUSD teacher's salary for teachers in the pool, rather than the actual cost of each individual employee.

"I'm really hopeful that's going to make the process more friendly to everybody," Olson-Jones said.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.