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City-union deal restores ATRs to long-term substitute positions

Teachers without positions who have been cycling through different schools each week will be assigned to more stable positions again, according to a deal that the city and UFT struck a month ago.

Under the terms of a different deal struck to avert teacher layoffs in 2011, the city last year sent members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, teachers whose positions had been eliminated, to different schools each week. The purpose of the rotation system, city and union officials said at the time, was to reduce spending on substitute teachers and increase the chances of ATRs landing a permanent job.

But the union found that some principals were filling their long-term absences with regular substitutes instead of allowing ATRs to cycle into them, according to union officials, in less extreme examples of improprieties alleged at Fort Hamilton High School. The practice let principals maintain control over their staff and allowed them to avoid hiring ATRs, whom former Chancellor Joel Klein characterized as “teachers who either don’t care to, or can’t, find a job.”

So the union filed a grievance against the city over the rotation system. The city agreed to negotiate policy changes rather than contest the grievance and risk having changes imposed by an arbitrator.

The main change, city officials say, is that any absence of longer than 29 days will be filled automatically, at least at first, by a member of the ATR pool. Previously, ATRs were supposed to fill “long-term absences,” but that term wasn’t defined, so it often did not happen.

So starting next week, ATRs will be assigned to fill absences of 30 days or more when the vacancy is in their geographic and license areas. Only if there is no appropriate long-term placement will the teachers continue to work as itinerant substitutes.

Had the arrangement been in effect last year, few of the 800 ATRs at the time would have had to rotate schools, UFT President Michael Mulgrew told GothamSchools last week. The pool has expanded since then because schools cut some positions over the summer and at the start of the year, when enrollment declines became apparent.

But Department of Education officials say the rule tweak would have had little impact last year and are telling principals that the changes are minimal.

“Although the [changes] provide schools with greater clarity and flexibility around the use of ATRs, it is important to remember that the core intent of the agreement has not changed,” Deputy Chancellor David Weiner wrote in a letter to principals this week. “The ATR rotation process is intended to avoid layoffs and generate cost savings, while also providing greater exposure for ATRs to schools and helping facilitate their search for a school-level position (whether regular appointed or provisional).”

The agreement does curtail principals’ discretion to choose who fills in for teachers on leave, in a departure for the city, which has famously considered principals to be the “CEOs of their buildings” for years.

But principals retain veto power over the department’s placements. They can elect to send back an ATR sent to their schools at any point and can use a regular substitute until another ATR is cycled in.

Teachers in the ATR pool criticized the rotation system for unfairly stigmatizing them and preventing them from making use of their expertise as educators. But union officials said the system had to some degree accomplished its goals: Over the course of the year, hundreds of teachers exited the pool for permanent positions.

This story has been updated to reflect the Department of Education’s characterization of the policy change and to clarify that the change affects absences of 29 days or longer only.

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