negotiating in public

Union: City's evaluation demands torpedoed ATR buyout option

For the last six months, teachers whose permanent positions were eliminated have known that the city might offer to pay them to leave the city’s payroll. But they haven’t known how much the option could yield, complicating their job-hunting calculus.

Now, we know, sort of — a day after UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the Wall Street Journal that the option was “dead in the water.”

The option might have been $14,000, or $25,000, or 25 percent of a teacher’s annual salary, or 20 percent, according to conflicting information the union and city released today. But both sides agreed that the deal stalled after the city made the buyout offer contingent on a different city proposal to give raises to top-rated teachers, a plan that the union had rejected back in January.

In dueling press releases, city and union officials sparred over what terms they had discussed for the buyout. City officials said they had offered to pay $25,000 to teachers who had spent more than one year in the Absent Teacher Reserve if the teachers would resign from the Department of Education.

But union officials said the city’s numbers were misleading. The $25,000 option, they said, would only have applied to ATRs with enough education and experience to put them at the top of the city’s salary scale. Other teachers who had spent more than a decade working in city schools would have netted much less, they said, because the city wanted to cap the offer at 20 percent of each teacher’s annual salary. (The city said the cap was 25 percent of the annual salary.) One-fifth of the average salary of mid-career teachers in the ATR pool, union officials said, would have amounted to just a $14,000 payout.

The city-union dispute over numbers reflected far more significant ideological differences over how to reward excellent teaching and urge weak teachers out of the system.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott first proposed the buyout plan in May during a speech in which he also vowed to purge the city’s teaching corps of teachers who receive “unsatisfactory” ratings for two years in a row. At the time, union officials said lauded the city for arriving at a policy proposal that they said they had suggested for years. As recently as mid-August, as teachers in the ATR pool rushed to find new positions, union officials said the buyout option was still in negotiations and that one might make its way to teachers this fall.

But this week, Mulgrew told the Wall Street Journal, “We thought it was a ruse from the beginning.”

Union officials said they had come to that conclusion after the city responded to their counter-offer on the size of the buyout by adding a new condition to the same terms it had previously proposed. The city’s updated offer, made in late August, would have established a buyout only if the union also agreed to let the city give $25,000 raises to teachers with two consecutive “highly effective” ratings on an evaluation system that is not yet in place. The union had rejected the plan as merit pay within hours of when Bloomberg proposed it in January.

David Weiner, the Department of Education’s deputy chancellor in charge of teacher quality issues, today explained that the city had paired the initiatives because the increased pay would reward top teachers and the buyout would solve a problem posed by a set of teachers he characterized as weak.

“In our opinion, ‘highly effective’ should be the most well paid teachers and by offering that salary increase we feel we could be able to retain them at much higher levels. That was something we really were incentivized to do,” Weiner said. “At the same time our ATR pool is a much lower-quality group of teachers.”

Of the 800 teachers in the ATR pool at the end of last year, a third had been brought up on disciplinary charged and nearly a third had received an “unsatisfactory” rating in the last five years, Weiner said. “Folks qualifying for this based on their data were actually a much lower-quality group of individuals,” he said.

In his last message to principals, former chancellor Joel Klein characterized members of the ATR pool as “teachers who either don’t care to, or can’t, find a job.” In fact, the ATR pool was created in a 2005 contract deal between the Bloomberg administration and the union to house teachers whose positions are eliminated, either because of budget cuts or because their schools are shrinking or closing. But the city has long criticized the ATR pool as being a drag on the city’s schools budget because its members are paid their full salaries even though they do not occupy regular teaching positions.

In a statement today, Mulgrew suggested that the city’s political stance on ATRs had adversely affected negotiations over the buyout option.

“Despite the DOE’s mismanagement of the hiring process and the political needs of the mayor, we will continue to fight for the children in our schools, and the rights of the teachers in the ATR pool who are working hard in schools every day,” he said.

He was responding to a statement from the city, in which Walcott touted not only the buyout option but also Bloomberg’s proposal to raise the salaries of teachers who land top ratings on an evaluation system that is not yet in place. The union rejected that proposal as soon as it was proposed in January.

“In an effort to block any and all progress, Mr. Mulgrew has misrepresented our offers to the public, but we will continue to make proposals that reward our best teachers and remove those who are ineffective out of the classroom and off the payroll,” Walcott said in the statement.

Both union and city officials said they had devised their buyout offers based on payouts that would likely induce ATRs to leave the system. But none of the price points they said were discussed would have swayed most of the teachers GothamSchools spoke to this fall about the buyout option.

In August, when the option was still on the negotiating table, one teacher who had spent five years in the reserve pool said she was considering not applying for new jobs because she wanted to leave the buyout option open.

“Everything I’ve taught [via the ATR pool] is outside of my license area. But the truth is, if I accept a new position, I’d be ineligible for the buyout,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified. “I might not take a position.”

But another teacher said no buyout would be large enough to convince him to give up on teaching in city schools.

And this week, a veteran teacher who is entering her second year in the ATR pool, said during a Department of Education hiring fair that companies such as IBM offer employees buyouts that equal hundreds of thousands of dollars. The department’s likely offer was just too small, said the teacher, who asked not to be identified because she was looking for another teaching position.

“The buyout wouldn’t be real,” said the teacher. “I would take it, if I could retire and not end up on the streets. It’s just not a realistic buyout if you couldn’t live on it.”

Their sentiments were similar to what other teachers told NY1 this week:

“They wouldn’t offer me enough,” said teacher Judith Allainer. “$10,000? Come on. When I’m making much more than that?”

“What would I like?” said [teacher Jonathan] Gibbs. “Give me years on my pension. If I’m a 15-year teacher, give me 20 years and I’ll take a buyout.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.