Funding the ATR

Absent Teacher Reserve cost New York City $151.6 million this past school year, far more than previously estimated

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

New York City spent $151.6 million in the 2016-17 school year on salary and fringe benefits for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve, according to numbers recently obtained by Chalkbeat from the city’s Independent Budget Office.

That’s higher than previous estimates on the cost of the ATR — a pool of teachers without permanent positions — which have generally hovered around $100 million. The high cost is no doubt one reason the city is eager to reduce the pool, which included 822 teachers at the end of the school year. Earlier this month, it announced plans to halve that number by placing hundreds into open vacancies in classrooms as of Oct. 15, potentially despite principal’s objections.

The IBO says its numbers come directly from school budgets prepared and provided by the city’s education department, in which ATR costs are included in their own separate lines. Officials in the city’s education department did not dispute the numbers but said they did not know exactly what methodology or point in time the IBO was capturing. “The number, salary, and overall cost of teachers in the ATR pool naturally fluctuates from day to day throughout the school year,” they said.

Teachers are placed into the ATR when their jobs are eliminated or for disciplinary reasons. As of October 2016, there were 1,304 teachers in the ATR pool, according to numbers released by the city last fall. Using the IBO’s estimate, on average each ATR teacher received a total of $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits for the past school year. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000). The IBO did not break down salary versus fringe benefits.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said he was not shocked to learn that the actual cost of the ATR pool was higher than previously estimated. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “I think the administration has tried to lowball the figure to avoid criticism.”

He noted that the ATR is a problem inherited by Mayor Bill de Blasio from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and not an easy one to solve. Still, he added, if the city is already paying as much as $151.6 million, it should consider instead passing a buyout plan with higher incentives for teachers than the $50,000 in severance pay the city is currently offering.

Instead, the city plans to place these teachers in classroom vacancies, where the schools will have to grapple with their salaries instead. While the city provided subsidies to schools hiring from the ATR in the past, under the new policy schools would have to bear the full cost of the new hires.

According to Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the city’s principals’ union, if an ATR hire causes a “budgetary restriction” for a principal, the city will work with principals to resolve the issue. He did not provide more details.

The city has vowed to work with schools to find the right fit. “We are reducing the size of the ATR pool with a number of common-sense reforms that drive resources back to schools and ensure qualified teachers are deployed effectively,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said. “These reforms will support the work our schools are doing every day, while also significantly lowering costs.”

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”