filling in the blanks

Arbitrator: City used "circular reasoning" to justify turnarounds

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s testimony before an arbitrator drove one nail into the coffin of the city’s plans to replace or rehire teachers at 24 “turnaround” schools.

Last week an arbitrator determined that the city violated the city’s contracts with the teachers and principals unions when it moved to replace staff members at the schools. This afternoon the arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released a detailed explanation of why he ruled the way he did.

The city was trying to use hiring procedures set for closing schools and their replacements. But the unions argued that the turnaround plans were “sham closures” that would not result in new schools. Instead, they argued, the city was unfairly using contractual provisions about “excessing” to remove teachers and administrators it deemed unsatisfactory.

In upholding the unions’ grievance, Buchheit at times turns Bloomberg’s and other city officials’ words against them.

He quotes a 2011 memorandum written by the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, which said, “excessing is not a permissible way to deal with unsatisfactory teachers.”

Yet city officials said they intended to do just that from the start of the turnaround process, Buchheit determined.

When he first announced the turnaround plans during his State of the City Address in January, Bloomberg “repeatedly made clear that the DOE’s new plan concerning the 24 (then 33) schools was based upon the desire to change staffing in the classroom,” Buchheit writes. He quotes Bloomberg saying, “Under this process, the best teachers stay; the least effective go.”

The arbitrator notes that Bloomberg has frequently expressed his distaste for the current process for shedding teachers from schools that are contracting, which is based on seniority, not job performance. “Suffice it to say that at the arbitration hearing the Mayor reaffirmed his dislike,” Buchheit writes.

Buchheit emphasized that he was not passing judgment on the value of the city’s plans for the schools, which State Education Commissioner John King approved in late June. And he said nothing in his decision would prevent the city from continuing with portions of the plans that do not involve using the hiring rules that take effect when schools are closed.

Those rules, outlined in a clause in the teachers union contract known as 18D, call for closing schools to set up hiring committees to review current teachers who apply for jobs at the replacement schools. According to 18D, the committees must hire back at least half of them of the qualified applicants from each school. City officials and school administrators began carrying out 18D procedures in the 24 schools last month with the understanding that the arbitrator could ultimately reverse it.

Department of Education officials had said they were confident that King’s approval of the reform plans would prove that the 24 schools were truly being closed. But Buchheit said King’s decision did not necessarily mean the schools were being closed and replaced with new schools. “New,” he said, typically means “never existing before,” which would not be the case for the 24 schools.

“The evidence here establishes that much would remain the same in the 24 new schools,” he wrote, including the schools’ buildings, student populations, courses, partnering organizations, and, for 18 of them, their principals. He also noted that many of the schools’ new names would still contain the old names, such as August Martin High School, which would change to “The School of Opportunities at the August Martin Campus.”

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg also suggested that the school closings were inauthentic, the arbitrator concludes, when he wrote in a memorandum to principals shortly after Bloomberg’s speech explaining that their schools would be closed “as a technical matter.”

For the schools to be truly new, Buchheit says, much would have to change, including their overall educational visions and leadership. Instead, the biggest change the city cited was the planned staffing change — but that change could only happen, he notes, if the schools were new.

“The DOE cannot use the end result of Article 18D being invoked as justification for why it is permitted to invoke 18D,” Buchheit writes. “I cannot adopt this circular reasoning for the purposes of contract interpretation.”

On Monday, Bloomberg said the city would appeal Buchheit’s ruling because the arbitrator had not yet explained his rationale. But after reading the opinion, city attorney Georgia Pestana said the city will not withdraw its appeal, which it filed in State Supreme Court on Monday. “The arbitrator clearly exceeded his authority,” she said.

The city had argued that the unions’ grievances were not arbitrable at all. In his opinion, Buchheit rejects each of the city’s three arguments for why the grievance should not be subject to binding arbitration.

Buchheit’s full decision is below:

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

Building Better Schools

Hundreds of teachers will be displaced by Indianapolis high school closing plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Tina Ahlgren spoke to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board in June about the importance of making the high school closing process easier for teachers.

If the Indianapolis Public Schools Board approves a plan to close three high schools, students won’t be the only ones facing transition: Hundreds of teachers will need to find new positions.

Just what will happen to those educators remains uncertain. District leaders say most teaching positions will be moved, not cut. But educators have raised concerns that the process for reassigning teachers is murky and that the prospect of school closings will push teachers to flee.

A proposal from Superintendent Lewis Ferebee released last month calls for closing Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School, and converting Arlington and Northwest High Schools to middle schools. Those four schools combined had 329 certified teachers in 2015-2016, the latest year available in the state performance report.

The district would also roll out a new career academy model, where students choose their high schools based on focus areas in fields such as business, construction and medical science.

All that transition means a lot of changes are in store for the hundreds of educators who work at the schools slated to close — and those at the high schools that will launch career academies and take the influx of new students.

For now, the district is not providing much information on what is in store for teachers. The details are expected to come after the IPS board votes on which schools to close in September. Eleven days after the board votes, central office staff are scheduled visit the high schools to discuss the timeline, next steps and personnel decisions.

But Ferebee said it will be even longer before the district has a full picture of how many teachers are needed at the career academies in each school because it depends on where students choose to enroll.

“Much of what we do with certified staff will be driven by enrollment interest of students,” he said.

By closing schools, the district expects to save $4.35 million in “classroom resources,” or expenses from the general fund, according to the report recommending closing high schools. The general fund is typically used to pay for costs including salaries for teachers and other school workers, equipment like computers and supplies needed to run the schools.

The administration does not expect it would save much from shrinking the teaching force, because they anticipate that the number of teachers will stay relatively stable, said deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand. “Our student enrollment will stay about the same.”

IPS union president Rhondalyn Cornett, who leads the Indianapolis Education Association, said that she also expects the number of teachers to remain steady — as long as students don’t start leaving the district for charter and township schools.

The career academies may also lead to more jobs for teachers with new skills and credentials, but it’s not entirely clear how that will play out. Some teachers may already be qualified to teach in the new programs and others may be able to get the extra credentials relatively easily.

Even if the district maintains the same number of students and teachers in its high schools, however, the transition is hard for teachers at the schools that are expected to close, Cornett said.

“They are afraid. They don’t understand how this process works,” she said. “They don’t know what the future holds.”

Cornett said that the district should make the closing process easier for educators by being clear about how they can get jobs at other schools and giving teachers who lost their jobs because of  school closings priority for open positions.

Tina Ahlgren, the 2014 IPS Teacher of the Year, spoke to the board in June about the urgent need to make the process transparent for teachers. Ahlgren has been through this before. She lost jobs at two prior schools after one school was taken over by the state and a magnet program at another school was abruptly moved.

“During each of these transitions, I watched dozens of loyal, effective, IPS educators leave the district due to the chaos that ensued and the broken promises from this district,” she said. “I speak here today to remind you of those challenges in the hopes that we will learn from our past and not repeat those mistakes this time around.”