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.”

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.”