Department of Education officials are telling principals of schools slated for “turnaround” not to worry about quotas when they decide which teachers to hire for next year.

This guidance conflicts with the federal guidelines for the reform model, which require a school to replace at least half its teachers. It also contradicts the words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials, who have done little to dispute this figure before alarmed teachers, students and parents at meetings held throughout the city.

The 50 percent figure has been repeated again and again in months since Bloomberg’s announcement, at forums, protests, union press conferences, and city presentations. Superintendent Aimee Horowitz told families and staff at Brooklyn’s William E. Grady High School and Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School that “up to 50 percent of the remaining faculty can be re-hired,” while at least 50 percent will have to leave. At a meeting of the Citywide Council on High Schools, Deputy Chancellor Elaine Gorman distributed a presentation that said part of the plan was to “re-hire no more than 50 percent.”

But behind the scenes, department officials have been telling principals to ignore this requirement. They said they have told principals at the 33 schools to hire the best teachers available without fretting over whether they are new or would be returning.

“Our goal is for schools to hire and recruit the most qualified teachers who meet the high standards set by their principals — not to remove a certain percentage of staff,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “As that happens, we will work with the state to secure millions of dollars in funding that these new schools need and deserve.”

Principals who have been working on developing plans for the replacement schools say they plan to follow the department’s instructions and are anticipating replacing far fewer teachers than 50 percent. Multiple principals said they were expecting to replace about a quarter of their teachers over the summer.

GothamSchools reported in January that the city was exploring the option of replacing fewer teachers at the schools under an allowance in the federal guidelines for some teachers who have been hired in the last two years. Department of Education officials declined to say how many of the schools’ 3,400 teachers are recent hires. But the latest directives to principals at the schools slated for turnaround could easily open the doors to far more returning teachers than the federal regulations would allow.

It could be that the city is anticipating hitting the 50 percent mark anyway, by using attrition and the limited exceptions to cut against rehiring. Or it could be that principals will be asked to do some trimming after selecting their initial roster of teachers for next year. But it could also be that the city intends to take advantage of the state’s role as arbiter of whether the city should receive federal funding to try to skirt the federal regulations. The city submitted applications for the funding this week, and now it is up to State Education Commissioner John King to decide whether they meet the federal rules.

King has so far commented on the plans only to say that the city’s initial description of turnaround—which suggested that it would be replacing half the teachers at each school—was “approvable.” Last week, state officials emphasized that the city must adhere to the federal regulations if it wants the millions of federal School Improvement Grant dollars that are on the line over the next two to three years.

“In order to approve SIG grants, they have to be in compliance with the federal regulations,” Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said about the city’s plans.

Rejecting applications on the basis of the 50 percent rule would put King in a difficult position. He would have to deny funding to schools that serve some of the state’s most needy students even though the principals of those schools say they have devised aggressive changes that are best for the students. When teachers unions across the state opposed new teacher evaluations and stalled SIG funding earlier this year, they were lambasted for undermining struggling students—and the state could face a similar backlash.

On the other hand, awarding funds to the city for applications that flout some rules could jeopardize funding for the other nine New York State districts that are eligible for SIG funding. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned New York last year that if it did not improve its compliance with the requirements of a different federal funding program, Race to the Top, it could lose funding. Failure to comply with SIG’s requirements could draw a similar threat.

The United States Department of Education has never asked a state to return SIG funding, which is allocated on a yearly basis, but it has delayed awarding year two and year three funds to states that have implementation problems in their districts. In general, however, it leaves administering of the grants—and cracking down on compliance problems—up to the states in order to empower them. The USDOE monitors states for compliance with their rules, and reports those findings on its website, federal officials said, but it does not intervene between states and their districts participating in the program, even when accountability questions are raised.

New York is among the states that has punished districts for failing to follow the guidelines, even witholding funds. But in other places, even when districts have skirted some of the requirements, states have approved their funding, and federal monitors have rebuked them without setting consequences.

The guidelines do contain a great deal of flexibility, particularly around the rehiring of recently hired teachers. The regulations say that anyone who was hired within the past two years may be counted as new hires under turnaround — as long as they were chosen using “locally adopted competencies,” education jargon for criteria set at the district or school level naming qualities that successful job candidates must possess.

The regulations do not spell out how a district can prove that a school has already been undergoing a reform effort or is using locally adopted competencies, and federal officials said it is the state’s job to interpret them.

That latitude could be one reason that Sternberg and other department officials are confident that the city will receive SIG funding for the schools, even though principals are being told they can hire back more than half of their teachers.

The math suggests that the confidence might be warranted. Depending on the make-up of the staff at a particular school, and how many of those teachers are recent hires, the school could re-hire 75 percent of its staff or more and still be following the guidelines.

For example, if a school with 60 teachers hired 10 of them in the last two years — a reasonable expectation in a city where many teachers leave their schools, or the school system entirely, within two years — and is set to lose another 10 this year through regular and turnaround-motivated attrition, the principal could hire back as many as three quarters of the remaining 40 teachers and still meet the federal regulations.

This scenario would be different for every school, and schools with more recent hires will have the most flexibility. The federal regulations contain no special dispensations for teachers who have been in place for more than two years. City officials stressed that they are not advising principals to remove teachers who have been at their schools for more than two years.

Sternberg said he was confident the state would approve the plans regardless of the number of teachers who stay on and how long they’ve been working at their schools.

But advocates of the federal turnaround model say the city could be straying too far from the educational philosophy behind it.

“If a school has struggled for years and years, no light-touch intervention is going to make much of a difference,” said Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group of the nonprofit Mass Insight Education.

“There’s nothing magic about 50 percent, but if you’re going to change the culture of a school you have to be very careful to make sure every adult in the building has the tools to be great, and also believe that things can be different,” Cohen added. “I’m sure that there are folks and students lamenting the short-term pains they’re going through, but the question to ask is what’s tolerable about the status quo.”