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Lost in the school closing debate: what happens to the teachers

In the debate over whether to close 19 schools this year, the city and its opponents have mulled possible effects on student achievement, attendance, and the drop-out rate. But one thing that remains unclear is what will happen to the approximately 1,000 teachers working in these schools.

Teachers who work at shuttered schools lose their positions, but — because of a deliberate line in the labor contract — they do not fall off the city payroll, even if they don’t find a new position at another city school. In the past few years, the contract line has meant a ballooning set of teachers receiving regular paychecks even though they don’t hold regular jobs. Between 2006 and April 2009, these members of the Absent Teacher Reserve cost the DOE approximately $193 million. This year, conservative estimates put the cost at $90 million.

In 2008, a report by The New Teacher Project, a New York-based research group, said the hiring process was “hard-wired for failure.” The report also found that 70 percent of excessed teachers from closing schools in 2007 were immediately hired at other schools.

But the situation next year could look worse.

The 1,000 teachers who leave those schools over the next four years will join 1,200 reserve pool members who are already looking for work. In September of 2008, there were 637 in the pool. The competition will be fiercer while the number of job openings could shrink as a result of education aid cuts from the state.

Neither the teachers union nor the Department of Education has, or would provide, projected numbers on how many teachers are expected to wind up in the reserve pool next year. Releasing how many teachers are likely to remain on the city’s payroll without permanent jobs could make both organizations uncomfortable. For the city, the information could strengthen the financial arguments against closing the schools. For the union, it could increase the pressure to stop paying teachers who have gone years without being able to find new jobs.

After a meeting last month during which the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close 19 schools, Chancellor Joel Klein said he didn’t think the closures would significantly inflate the reserve pool. “I don’t think it’ll climb radically,” he said.

The addition of teachers from closing schools to the reserve pool may not be radical, but it’s likely to have a greater impact this year than in years past.

The majority of teachers in the 19 schools slated for closure next year are working in high schools, which will phase out over four years, meaning that about a quarter of them will lose their jobs each year.

If the current climate resembled that of June 2007, most of these teachers would likely find new jobs by September of the following school year and fewer than 100 would be in the reserve pool. But in 2010, the story is likely to be different.

Teachers excessed from closing schools could benefit from a hiring freeze that forces principals to hire from within the system, rather than from the graduate classes of teaching colleges. But what little help this might offer could be counteracted by a contraction in the number of available jobs. Bloomberg is threatening to cut 2,500 teaching positions if the union doesn’t agree to lower pay raises and Governor Paterson is pushing about $600 million in cuts that the city said could reduce the teaching force by 8,500.

A diagram from the New Teacher Project report shows three differently sized closing schools and what happened to the teachers who left them in the summer of 2007.