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Some teachers say their tenure approvals are being rescinded

Some teachers this week are getting bad news about what they thought was already a done deal: their tenure.

Teachers come up for tenure, which confers stronger job protections, after three years. In their third year, their principals recommend a tenure decision to the superintendent, who has the final say on whether to approve, deny, or defer tenure.

But some teachers whose principals had already received superintendent sign-off found out this week that those approvals had been rescinded, according to principals, teachers, and union officials. The teachers are instead being offered an extension of their probationary periods, some for the second time.

The scenario has played out at multiple schools, according to officials at the United Federation of Teachers, who said the schools all seemed to have low scores on their Department of Education progress reports.

The reversals appear to mark a new phase in the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to make tenure tougher to earn — or, as Mayor Bloomberg put it in a 2010 vow, “ending tenure as we know it.” Last year, the city aggressively cut down on the rate of tenure approvals, instead extending the probationary period of 40 percent of teachers up for tenure, up from 8 percent in 2010, and many principals said their superintendents had rejected some of their tenure recommendations.

At the time, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city aimed to make it harder still for teachers to earn tenure. “You’ll see the number probably go up again next year as far as those denied,” he said.

Neither teachers nor union officials reported an uptick in denials. But they said it seemed that most teachers up for tenure in struggling schools were being told that they would not get tenure this year, no matter what their principals or superintendents thought.

The first-year principal of Automotive High School, a low-performing school that is set to close at the end of the month and reopen as a new school with different staff, recommended that six teachers who were up for tenure receive it, according to a teacher at the school. In April, the high school superintendent responsible for approving the school’s tenure decisions, Karen Watts, signed off on three of the recommendations, ruling that the other three teachers should stay on probation for another year.

But on Monday, the three teachers who had been told Watts had approved their tenure learned that they too would have to spend another year proving themselves.

“What could have happened in a month to make the superintendent change her mind?” asked the teacher, whose tenure approval was rescinded. He asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to jeopardize his job prospects at Greenpoint High School for Engineering and Automotive Technology, the school that is set to replace Automotive, or in the future.

“They said the data wasn’t good,” said the teacher, referring to his students’ performance scores. “If it was really the data, why did she grant [tenure] to us in the first place?”

The teacher added that a teacher roster for Automotive proved that the Department of Education’s human resources system had already recognized him as having been taken off probation. The document, which was published on May 25, shows the teacher’s name as having “completed probation.”

Union officials said Automotive was not alone in seeing tenure decisions reversed and said they suspected the directive had come straight from the Department of Education’s top officials. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he began getting calls from principals last Friday, telling him that superintendents said the decision was being made above their heads.

“When tenure decisions start getting made for the political needs of the mayor versus actual job evaluations of the people involved, then the school system is becoming a joke,” Mulgrew said.

Last summer, Walcott said data about the distribution of tenure decisions would show “a correlation” between low-performing schools and tenure denials and extensions.

Mulgrew warned that if that were the case, the city could be breaking state labor laws that bar individual tenure denials based on how a school performs overall.

“The law is very clear on this,” he said. “Tenure is based on the individual job performance. It’s not based on the performance of the school where they work.”

Sources said that tenure decisions was being deferred in other schools that the city has identified as low-performing. At John Dewey High School, where a new principal started in the middle of the year, all six teachers up for tenure were denied. At Herbert Lehman High School, the only teachers who received tenure this year had already had their probationary period extended before, according to a teacher there. Both schools are, like Automotive, set to undergo the overhaul process known as “turnaround.”

“I dont think anyone really truly expected to get tenure in this school under these circumstances, but they were hoping they were wrong,” said a teacher at Dewey.

A spokesman for the Department of Education denied that any campaign was underway to reverse tenure recommendations in certain schools and said final decisions on tenure “are based on a careful review of the teacher’s performance, in consultation with the principal.”

The spokesman added, “If the union, principals, or teachers have specific concerns, we will look into them — but no concerns have been shared so far.”