draining the pool

New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve could get pricier as teachers collect raises, bonuses

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

The controversial Absent Teacher Reserve is set to become even more expensive for New York City as educators in the pool build years of experience and earn bonuses.

That’s according to a report released Thursday by the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, which estimates the reserve will cost $136 million this school year.

The reserve is comprised of teachers who don’t have a permanent position because their schools were closed, or because they face legal or disciplinary problems. Many serve as roving substitute but others do deskwork or administrative tasks — or, critics say, nothing at all — while collecting a full salary.

The commission dug into the costs of the reserve just as the city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers is set to expire in November, and the report adds to calls for the city to negotiate major changes regarding teachers in the pool.

“We as taxpayers have to ask: Are we going to ensure their payment and job protection indefinitely?” said Maria Doulis, Vice President of the Commission. “I think, for most people, that answer is no.”

But that is easier said than done, with the union fighting hard to keep job protections for its teachers. In response to the report, a UFT spokeswoman said that the commission should be “checking its numbers” and argued the reserve actually saves the Department of Education money.

“Teachers are assigned to schools to replace other teachers out on medical or other leave, which allows the DOE to save tens of millions of dollars each year on the cost of hiring long-term substitutes,” the union said in an emailed statement.

Here are highlights from the commission’s report.

The average ATR is more experienced and earns a higher salary than other teachers.

Teachers in the reserve have an average of 18 years of experience and earn a salary of $98,126, according to the committee. Across the system, teachers are slightly less experienced, with about 10 years in the classroom, and make $84,108.

The report finds that paychecks have increased for teachers in the reserve, compared with city figures that were released in summer 2017. Ana Champeny, who oversees city budget analyses for the committee and authored the ATR report, said that’s likely because educators continue to collect salary boosts and bonuses just like any other teacher.

“That’s increasing the cost to the city,” she said. “And it’ll get even more expensive as more raises are awarded.”

In the meantime, a 3 percent salary increase goes into effect this week, under the terms of the city’s current contract with the UFT. With the boost, educators with 18 years of service will earn an extra $14,084 total.

Still, the commission’s report found that the Absent Teacher Reserve overall will cost less than previous years. Figures from the Independent Budget Office show that the city spent almost $152 million on the pool in the 2016-17 school year — $16 million more than this year’s estimate. The reduction could be because there are about 100 fewer educators in the reserve this year compared with Oct. 2016.

The city has saved millions through efforts to drain the reserve.

The reserve was created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a bid to give principals more control to hire their own staff, scuttling union rules that previously allowed senior teachers who were laid off by their current school to transfer into new positions.

At the beginning of this school year, the budget committee found that 1,202 teachers were in the reserve. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to cut the pool in half, partially by offering severance payments to entice teachers to leave the system.

Many teachers took a deal offered this year: A lump sum payment of $50,000. The commission found that 170 teachers opted for the buyouts — costing the city $8.5 million. Still, the city will save $23 million a year by offering the payments, according to the report.

The de Blasio administration has tried to drain the reserve in other ways, such as by offering budget incentives to principals who hire from the pool, or placing reserve educators into schools even without principal approval. The latter effort has been controversial — with some principals vowing to hide vacant positions — and not nearly as effective as the city had hoped.

While officials had planned to place 400 teachers from the pool into permanent positions, only 75 openings were filled with reserve teachers. That will generate $7 million in savings by 2020, according to the commission.

But the city should negotiate more substantial changes, the commission argues.

Cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have managed to tamp down on some teacher seniority rights that critics say make it difficult to lower the number of teachers in the reserve. Both cities limit the amount of time a teacher can remain on the payroll while looking for a permanent job.

The commission said New York City should fight for similar measures, and cap a teacher’s stint in the reserve to six months. Past and present administrations have struggled to strike an agreement with the union that would significantly weaken job protections for teachers, but Doulis said that the reserve is likely a priority on the city’s agenda as the two sides hash out an agreement.

“How you get to compromise and work out a solution, that’s a different story,” she said. “But I do think it’s something that will be discussed.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.