on the table

What the teachers' contract talks are all about, part I: Back pay and excessed teachers

As the city and the teachers union move closer to an agreement on a new contract, the issues under the microscope are coming into focus.

To teachers, the contract negotiations represent hope for a pay raise. For principals and teachers struggling to handle the implementation of the Common Core learning standards and a new evaluation system, the talks could lead to extra time in the school day. And for economic analysts, the negotiations will be a harbinger of the city’s fiscal outlook.

The outcome will offer a first look at how Mayor Bill de Blasio will deal with political allies when they’re on the other side of the negotiating table. De Blasio said during the election last year that he would be a tough negotiator with unions because they endorsed other candidates in the Democratic primary.

“I am unburdened by the support of the municipal labor unions,” de Blasio said last August. He was eventually endorsed by the UFT and other unions in the general election.

Both sides have their own priorities. Here’s a look at the biggest issues they’re working through.

1. Giving retroactive pay

The city’s teachers union has been without a contract for nearly five years, longer than any other municipal labor force. UFT negotiators are now demanding two chunks of back pay, and what de Blasio agrees to give them will set a standard for raises for the other 150 outstanding union contracts the city is facing.

The issue: The pay scales for teachers and other school personnel within the UFT have been unchanged since 2009, though most teachers have seen their salaries increase anyway thanks to scheduled pay bumps.

The union’s top priority now is getting $3.4 billion of back pay for the first two years its members worked without a contract. That would match up with what other unions got in 2008, when the UFT and principals union sat out of a round of collective bargaining.

The union is also negotiating a second round of back pay for the third, fourth, and fifth years its members worked without a contract. The outcome of that negotiation is being closely watched by more than educators, since it will likely establish a bargaining pattern for more than 150 municipal labor contracts that the city is looking to settle in the coming months.

On the table: City officials have said they simply can’t afford to pay an initial $3.4 billion round of back pay as a lump sum. On top of that, de Blasio’s aides have reportedly floated a long-term deal that would spread those raises for teachers out over several years instead. (Union insider Peter Goodman recently wrote that both sides may have agreed on a contract that would expire after de Blasio is up for reelection in 2017.)

All teachers currently in the system will get some raise under that plan, though how much will depend on how long they’ve been in the system.

All told, the city could be on the hook more than $8 billion if the city follows that pattern with other unions, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group. Budget analysts say would hurt the city’s fiscal outlook for years to come.

2. Revamping the Absent Teacher Reserve

After pay raises, figuring out what to do with “excessed” teachers who can’t find full-time posts is the biggest sticking point in contract talks. Both sides have long agreed that the current system doesn’t work, but haven’t been able to agree on a solution. New leadership at City Hall could finally break what has been a years-long stalemate.

The issue: The city is paying the salaries of nearly 1,200 teachers without full-time positions. Most were let go from previous jobs because of budget cuts or because their schools were closed, and others have received low ratings on their evaluations or were let go for disciplinary reasons. Last year, the city said that pool cost an estimated $105 million.

Many newly-excessed teachers find new posts quickly. But as of last spring, 59 percent of ATR members had been in the pool for two or more years, according to Department of Education data.

To the Bloomberg administration, and groups now pushing its agenda, the ATR pool is made up of weak teachers who should be removed from the city’s payroll. But educators contend there are plenty of competent teachers in the pool who could be contributing in schools if they were given a legitimate chance.

“It is a complete waste of such talent that these people are not being used in schools right now,” Mulgrew said in a radio interview in February.

The issue, some say, is a hiring system that means veteran teachers, with their higher salaries, are more likely to be passed over by principals who want to save money and hire new teachers.

“One principal cut short an interview by telling me that she would not hire me because I was tenured and too set in my ways,” Jonathan Joseph, who wrote on Chalkbeat this week that he was in the ATR pool for three years before finding a new job. “Another admitted to me that she liked me and my resume, but it was cheaper to hire a Teaching Fellow.”

On the table: In the past, Bloomberg and Mulgrew flirted with the idea of offering a buyout to long-term excessed teachers, but as their relationship deteriorated in the administration’s waning years, so did the possibility of an agreement.

Bloomberg’s final buyout offer last fall included no perks and just a four-month time limit for ATRs to find a job before getting laid off, which officials said would save the city at least $63 million each year.

But the proposed solutions have changed in dramatic ways since de Blasio took office, sources say.

Negotiators aren’t discussing ways to get rid of excessed teachers, some sources say. They’re instead focused on returning them to classrooms for longer-term teaching assignments—they currently rotate among schools weekly—and on finding ways to incentivize principals to hire from the pool.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has repeatedly insisted that she’ll protect principals’ power to hire the teachers they want—a principle known as “mutual consent hiring.” What’s still unclear is how teachers could be matched with schools and what kinds of incentives Fariña might offer principals.

Up next: tackling teacher evaluations and training time.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede