draining the pool

NYC’s plan to place teachers from its Absent Teacher Reserve pool could take a bite out of school budgets

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
The group StudentsFirstNY staged a rally this summer to protest the city's plan to place educators in the Absent Teacher Research in schools with job openings.

When city officials announced a plan to place hundreds of teachers without permanent positions into classroom vacancies this fall, an immediate question arose: Could schools afford them?

That’s a critical question because the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve, has historically been made up of teachers who are more senior than average, and therefore more expensive. Some principals say that makes an already bitter pill — having a teacher they didn’t choose — even tougher to swallow.

What we do know: Under the new policy, schools will incur the full cost of the new hires, without incentives the city has provided in the past.

And over the last school year, these teachers cost the city a total of $151.6 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That means, on average, each of the 1,304 teachers in the pool last fall received $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits. By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher is $54,000. The city has said that roughly 400 teachers would be placed into open slots this fall.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Per city policy, a school’s budget for staff is based on its number of teachers and the average of their salaries. During a new hire’s first year, his or her salary isn’t factored into the school’s average teacher salary. But after that year, it is. Since a school’s budget is capped based on the number and type of students it serves, if a school’s average salary goes up, principals could be forced to cut from other parts of their budgets to fund personnel.

“If you hire a senior person, the first year, you have no effect, but the second year that affects your average,” said Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the city’s principals union. “So it does catch up to you.”

But Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, isn’t buying it. “Principals have historically exaggerated the impact on their school budget of hiring someone from the ATR pool,” he said in a statement. “We have found the impact of hiring a more experienced teacher, whether from the open market or the ATR pool, does not derail a school budget.”

Ironically, this is an issue the UFT set out to tackle in its 2014 contract with the Department of Education. A provision in the contract states that schools that hire an ATR teacher would not have that teacher’s salary included in the school’s average teacher salary calculation. That agreement stood for both the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years.

“Principals no longer have a reason to pass over more senior educators in favor of newer hires with lower salaries,” the UFT promised in a statement on the 2014 contract posted online.

During the 2016–17 school year, the DOE also offered two options for subsidizing the salaries of ATR members. The first subsidized the costs of permanent ATR hires by 50 percent the first year and 25 percent the next. The second allowed principals to have the full cost of the teacher’s salary subsidized for the 2016–17 year. Ultimately, a total of 372 teachers were hired with those incentives last year.

But starting in the upcoming school year, neither of those policies will be in place. Schools will not receive the incentives and the salaries of ATR teachers will be included in a school’s average teacher salary once they are permanently hired.

The UFT declined to comment on the apparent flip-flop, and neither the UFT nor the city’s Department of Education could estimate the average number of years of experience of teachers in the pool.

According to city education department officials, the majority of most schools’ budgets can be used at principals’ discretion. For example, principals can choose to hire more newly minted teachers, or a smaller number of veteran teachers. Or, they can hire fewer teachers overall and use the remaining money on things such as professional development or after-school programs, the officials said.

But critics say forced placement of teachers takes some of that freedom away from principals. Multiple principals said that, because new hires do not alter a school’s budget until the second year, some of their peers might be tempted to rate ATRs placed into their school “ineffective” so as to not have to hire them permanently and cause their average teacher salary to rise.

Under the city’s new policy, ATR teachers placed by the city only become permanent hires if they are given a “highly effective” or “effective” rating in the observation portion of their evaluation at the end of their first year in a school.

At the very least, one Bronx principal said, he’d be wary of the hire. “If someone automatically puts an ATR into my school,” he said, “I would go in there and observe them quite a bit.”

City education officials said it isn’t so easy to rig an evaluation since it relies on a “well-defined rubric based on evidence.” In general, they noted, budget concerns are likely misplaced.

“The number and salary of teachers at a given school changes significantly as schools do regular hiring from year to year,” said one official. “We work with schools to ensure they have the budget to fund the teachers they hire.”

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.

school security

How Chicago schools’ fingerprinting requirements are scaring away undocumented parents

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a June rally in the Little Village neighborhood called for the elimination of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A letter circulating among public school parents warns of unintended consequences of fingerprinting school council members because of concerns over deportations.

Parents and community leaders are calling on Chicago Public Schools to back away from a requirement for fingerprinting elected school council members, in light of widespread immigrant fears of deportation. The letter, which you can read below, is addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leadership.

A group of Local School Council members at New Field Elementary, in Rogers Park, started the letter in English and Spanish after a fellow council member whom they believe to be undocumented refused to be fingerprinted because of fears of deportation.

“They want to have say in the education of kids — but it’s not worth it to risk deportation or be separated from their families,” said Annie Gill-Bloyer, a New Field LSC member who is helping circulate the notice.  

Gill-Bloyer, the parent of a second-grader at the school, said that the adults on the elected councils don’t have any unsupervised contact with children. “There are always several adults in that meeting, including the principal,” she said.

Per Illinois state law, all school council members are required to undergo a fingerprint-based background check, and prospective candidates are made aware of this requirement upon filing as a candidate. But some of them told Chalkbeat that the policy was not previously enforced. Local School Councils help select principals, review school-level budgets, and monitor school improvement plans. 

The issue highlights the balancing act that is bridging communities and schools, while keeping students safe. “The district remains committed to improving efforts to bolster student safety and protections and we also remain a district that welcomes and values all families from all backgrounds,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton in a statement.

Starting this summer, Chicago Public Schools began doubling down on background rechecks and fingerprinting in the wake of a series of articles from the Chicago Tribune that exposed gaps in how the district handled allegations of student sexual misconduct at the hands of adults. The district announced several new policy changes and precautions before the start of school, including new trainings for staff, hiring for a 20-person Office of Student Protections and Title IX, and a districtwide poster campaign that spells out how to report suspected misconduct.

The district also has required all employees, vendors, coaches, and other adults who spend a significant amount of time working or volunteering in schools to undergo background rechecks and fingerprinting. Snafus with background checks threatened to delay the start of school for dozens of teachers and have held up staffing in other areas, such as nurses.

Gill-Bloyer said her group decided to write the letter after they called the Office of Local School Council Relations and were told the background checks would be enforced. The group was told that council members who didn’t comply could be removed as early as this fall.    

Calling the background checks and fingerprinting an “unacceptably high barrier to participation” for Hispanic/Latinx families, whose children make up nearly half of the Chicago’s public school population, the letter asks district leadership to reclassify Local School Council members as Level II volunteers — a category that doesn’t require fingerprinting. Council members tend to meet only a few hours per month in schools, often after school hours, and are not typically alone with children.

We understand the necessity of thoroughly screening all adults who work with and around our children in light of the horrifying revelations of sexual abuse and assault,” the letter reads. But, with respect to Local School Council members, “a blanket solution has created unwanted and unintended consequences.”

A Level II volunteer is the same status conferred to a parent who volunteers to go on a field trip or who volunteers in a school for fewer than 10 hours a week. Similarly, those volunteers are not allowed to be alone with children. Level I volunteer status — which requires fingerprinting and background checks — covers coaches and chaperones of overnight field trips.

The letter says that requiring school council members to submit their fingerprints and personal information to an electronic database for background checks exposes undocumented members and their dependents to “the very real risk” of having their information shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Chicago has adopted the “sanctuary city” designation, which essentially means that city officials pledge to limit cooperation with federal law enforcement in deportation cases, unless a resident was involved in a serious crime. The letter notes that stance when asking for the reclassification of school council members to Level II volunteer status.