Friday, May 18, 2012
NYC DOE To Propose A Buyout For All ATRs
The city is proposing to offer buyouts to a pool of teachers who draw full salaries but have no permanent jobs, abandoning efforts to have them laid off but potentially solving one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s most intractable education issues.
At a speech Thursday morning before the Association for a Better New York, the New York City schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, did not say how much the teachers would be offered but said the buyouts would be “generous.”
The pool, known as the absent teacher reserve, now numbers around 830 and consists largely of teachers whose positions have been lost through budget cuts or school closings but who cannot be laid off under the teachers’ contract because they have done nothing wrong.
Nearly a quarter of the teachers in the pool have been without regular teaching assignments for at least two years, and 44 percent have never formally applied for a new position at another school, according to the Education Department. The teachers’ union has claimed that the stigma of being in the pool has prevented good teachers from being hired by principals, but city officials and some principals have said many of the teachers are mediocre.
They are used as substitutes throughout the system, wherever they are needed.
On Thursday, Mr. Walcott said the $100 million or so the city spent each year on these teachers’ and other school staff salaries amounted to “wasting it on teachers who probably chose the wrong profession.”
While former Chancellor Joel I. Klein publicly pressured the union to limit the amount of time teachers could remain on the city’s books without finding a permanent placement, the union resisted and suggested buyouts.
The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, said he approached leaders of the school system as well as Mr. Bloomberg with the idea of buyouts several times and was repeatedly turned down.
“All I heard for a couple of years was how they were philosophically opposed to it,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “I’m happy they’re having a change of heart.”
It is unclear exactly what it might cost to persuade a teacher to resign. Among the teachers eligible for the buyout, the average annual salary comes to $84,000. Mr. Mulgrew would not suggest a price either, but the ultimate offer does require union approval.
One teacher in the pool, Christine Gross, was the union chapter leader for eight years at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the South Bronx but was “excessed” — her position was eliminated — by her principal after she received four unsatisfactory ratings in a row. Since then, she has jumped from one school to the next, working as a substitute teacher while applying for regular teaching assignments. Since March, she has been in the same school and is teaching a special education class, an area in which she said she was unlicensed.
“It’s very frustrating, and I don’t feel like I’m really doing any teaching,” Ms. Gross said. “Well, I’m teaching, but I’m not sure they’re doing any learning.”
She would be eligible for a buyout by next fall, but she is not interested. “This is what I always wanted to do,” she said.
In the same speech on Thursday, Chancellor Walcott also vowed to bypass stalled negotiations with the city’s teachers’ union over a new evaluation system. If there is no agreement by next fall, he said, the city would remove from classrooms and attempt to fire any teacher who received two consecutive ratings of unsatisfactory.
Mr. Walcott also promised not to place elementary school students in classrooms with teachers who had been rated unsatisfactory for two consecutive years. The policy would not apply to middle or high school students.
“If we truly believe that every student deserves a great teacher,” he said, “then we can’t accept a system where a student suffers with a poor-performing one for two straight years.”
Some teachers have complained that the ratings are sometimes given by vindictive principals. Peter Lamphere, a high school teacher in Queens, said he received two unsatisfactory ratings, in 2008 and 2009, when he worked at the Bronx High School of Science. One of them has since been overturned, and Mr. Lamphere is now in court to challenge the second. Under Mr. Walcott’s threat, he would have been likely to face firing.
“To me, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Mr. Lamphere said, adding that last year, his new principal rated him satisfactory.
After years of trying to oust ineffective teachers by reforming the system, the Bloomberg administration is turning to options it already has available to try to prune the weakest educators from its ranks.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Thursday the district would move to fire teachers who receive low ratings due to incompetence in two consecutive years if a new teacher-evaluation system isn't in place by the time school starts this fall.
He also proposed offering buyouts to teachers who have been floating in the system for more than a year without permanent classroom positions. The value of the buyouts would have to be negotiated with the teachers union.
Ridding schools of poorly performing teachers has been one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's highest priorities, but his attempts to make sweeping institutional changes haven't always succeeded against union resistance. He lost a fight last year to end seniority protections during layoffs, and efforts to fire teachers for incompetence have been slow.
The buyouts are intended to put a dent in a group of about 830 teachers who have been unable to find jobs in the city's public schools but have tenure protection. About 475 currently would be eligible for a buyout, and most of the group would be eligible by autumn.
Some teachers in the so-called Absent Teacher Reserve pool were let go by their principals, while others were in schools that were closed by the city. A few were previously in the infamous "rubber rooms," where teachers facing disciplinary procedures did little work while collecting paychecks.
"Every dollar we save, we can use to benefit our students instead of wasting it on teachers who probably chose the wrong profession," Mr. Walcott said during an address at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
The average salary for teachers in the pool is $82,420, but the city saved about $5 million this year by using them as substitutes throughout the system.
Similar buyouts have been used in Washington, D.C., Dallas and Houston, with offers of, for instance, $20,000 for the most senior teachers. Mr. Walcott said New York's would be "more attractive than any we've seen across the nation—for teachers, and for the taxpayers of New York City."
He didn't, however, provide an estimated cost of the proposal. In his speech, Mr. Walcott said the city was spending $100 million on the salaries for teachers in the pool, but his office later said the figure was $68.5 million for salaries, a number that jumped to $93 million when benefits costs were included.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said the union has approached both Mr. Walcott and his predecessor to propose buyouts but were brushed back. He called the plan a "nice change of heart."
"It would have been easier if [Mr. Walcott] called me first," he said. "He might have been able to do a speech about how it's already done and negotiated."
He questioned why Mr. Bloomberg has waited so long to try to fire teachers with two straight years of an "unsatisfactory" rating, a power the administration has always had but left up to principals' discretion. Of the roughly 75,000 city teachers, 235 have been rated "unsatisfactory" for incompetence for two consecutive years.
Like districts throughout New York state, the city has been negotiating with its teachers' union over a new evaluation system that makes it easier to fire teachers. Under state law, the city must have a new, four-tiered job-performance review in place by January or lose a small amount of state funding.
The Absent Teacher Reserve pool was established in the 2005 teachers' contract, when forced job-placement within the school system ended. Both teachers and principals had to accept each other, or teachers would be on the payroll without a permanent position, often serving as long-term substitutes.
This year, teachers without permanent positions have been assigned to schools as substitutes for a week at a time. After the week is up, they rotate to another school.
The Department of Education said this was intended as a sort of speed-dating: introduce as many teachers and principals as possible, and hope they find a match. But critics called the procedure a hardship intended to push out teachers by forcing them to commute to different locations across the city.
Joanne Pezzolo, a high-school English teacher from Staten Island, said she would jump at the chance to take a buyout. But at age 53, she said she can't afford one unless it's about half her $79,000 annual salary. Ms. Pezzolo, who was cut from a school that had declining enrollment, said she sees both sides of the argument. She hated traveling among schools and believed there was a stigma attached to teachers in the ATR pool.
But when she found a longer-term spot at a school in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill, she said she saw some atrocious teachers. One man came in, put his coat over his head, dragged a few chairs together and went to sleep, she recalled. Other teachers refused to leave their drivers' licenses at the front desk in exchange for a bathroom key.
"They shouldn't get a buyout," she said. "They shouldn't even get a paycheck. They should just be fired."
Write to Lisa Fleisher at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared May 18, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: City Moving To Strengthen Teacher Pool.