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Union open to turnaround plan that cuts teachers based on merit

For the first time, the city teachers union could allow teachers to be removed from schools based on merit rather than seniority, a union official close to the negotiations said today.

As part of his middle schools initiative, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced in a speech this morning a plan to pursue federally-funded “turnaround” for 10 low-performing schools that would begin next year. The model, which replaces at least half of the schools’ teachers based on effectiveness – rather than seniority – can only go forward with approval from the United Federation of Teachers.

The union has already been in “preliminary discussions” with the city about implementing the model next year and is “open” to further negotiations, an official said today.

“These are all struggling schools and we are willing to help struggling schools,” the official said. “It’s not a debatable point.”

This version of turnaround, one of four models the Obama Administration has mandated for low-performing schools, has previously been off the table in any past negotiations. Two other models, plus another turnaround version that resembles the city’s school closure policy, are already in place in New York City, but none are as aggressive. Together the 10 schools could get up to $30 million in federal grants.

Specifics about how teacher would be removed are still under negotiations, the official said. But any teachers removed because of the turnaround would remain on the city’s payroll as members of the Absent Teachers Reserve.

The mere willingness to discuss a plan to identify and remove unfit teachers from struggling schools is the latest sign of an evolved working relationship between the union and city.

Last week, UFT President Michael Mulgrew praised Walcott for his decision to end the controversial Teacher Data Reports program. “I can say confidently for the first time I feel that the chancellor of New York City is trying to put children first,” Mulgrew said.

Responding in a statement to Walcott’s speech, Mulgrew did not specifically mention the turnaround model. He criticized other parts of the plan, which included more school phase-outs and new charter schools, because they “did not go far enough.”

Last summer, New York State received $300 million to fix 57 of its “persistently low-achieving” schools, the majority of which were located in New York City. But it used just a fraction of its allocated funds on the least invasive model because of negotiation delays with the teachers union.

The city said it did not know which middle schools it would target for the Turnaround model. Eleven middle schools are currently on the state’s persistently lowest-achieving list and more could be added in coming months.

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