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Manhattan principal suggests a compromise on layoffs

If Mayor Bloomberg decides to layoff teachers in the next 30 days, how should he do it?

That question was put to four members of a panel on the city’s seniority-based layoff policy that was arranged by Teach for America last night. Most panelists’ answers were predictable and echoed the remarks that have been traded back and forth in the months of debate over layoffs. The representative from the city’s teachers union defended seniority layoffs and said that if the mayor wanted to, he’d find a way to avoid layoffs. The two panelists who work for organizations that advocate against the LIFO system argued for its end.

Principal of the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction Matt Willoughby found himself somewhere in the middle. Layoffs are only a hypothetical threat for him, he said, because his newest teachers have science licenses. Science teachers are in high demand and so the city has chosen to lay off fewer of them than many other types of teachers.

But looking at the system as a whole, Willoughby said the city doesn’t have an evaluation system that’s good enough to use for layoffs. The evaluation system it does have, which Bloomberg wants to use to identify the weakest teachers and then let them go, labels teachers as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” ratings.

“Across the city I’m sure I would not trust all of my colleagues to make those decisions fairly,” Willoughby said. “It’s disheartening to say you’ve done an amazing job, so I’m going to give you an S [satisfactory]. It lowers the threshold. That U [unsatisfactory] seems so low that it makes you think twice before giving it.”

At the same time, Willoughby said, layoffs based on seniority would disrupt thousands of schools. His suggestion:

“I really would want to take a look at the number of teachers that are in the system that are getting paid full salaries that are not working with students. You hear different estimates as to how many of those teachers there are. But I would really want to know what that number is first and then as a politician I would do whatever it takes to not layoff current teachers. Because they haven’t put in place a good evualtion system to make those decisions on.

The other thing I would like is for the mayor to offer an alternative — to let schools know how much they would have to cut to save all the teachers. There’s a lot of spending that can be cut back temporarily to save jobs.”

The teachers Willoughby suggests should be laid off are known as being in the Absent Teacher Reserve. This means they were excessed when their schools closed or when budgets shrank and schools could no longer afford them. While some do work in classrooms teaching students, others are marginally employed doing administrative tasks, and all of them remain on salary.

The teachers union has defended these teachers against layoffs while groups such as Educators4Excellence have argued that they should be among the first to be laid off.

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