on the table

What the teachers' contract talks are all about, part I: Back pay and excessed teachers

As the city and the teachers union move closer to an agreement on a new contract, the issues under the microscope are coming into focus.

To teachers, the contract negotiations represent hope for a pay raise. For principals and teachers struggling to handle the implementation of the Common Core learning standards and a new evaluation system, the talks could lead to extra time in the school day. And for economic analysts, the negotiations will be a harbinger of the city’s fiscal outlook.

The outcome will offer a first look at how Mayor Bill de Blasio will deal with political allies when they’re on the other side of the negotiating table. De Blasio said during the election last year that he would be a tough negotiator with unions because they endorsed other candidates in the Democratic primary.

“I am unburdened by the support of the municipal labor unions,” de Blasio said last August. He was eventually endorsed by the UFT and other unions in the general election.

Both sides have their own priorities. Here’s a look at the biggest issues they’re working through.

1. Giving retroactive pay

The city’s teachers union has been without a contract for nearly five years, longer than any other municipal labor force. UFT negotiators are now demanding two chunks of back pay, and what de Blasio agrees to give them will set a standard for raises for the other 150 outstanding union contracts the city is facing.

The issue: The pay scales for teachers and other school personnel within the UFT have been unchanged since 2009, though most teachers have seen their salaries increase anyway thanks to scheduled pay bumps.

The union’s top priority now is getting $3.4 billion of back pay for the first two years its members worked without a contract. That would match up with what other unions got in 2008, when the UFT and principals union sat out of a round of collective bargaining.

The union is also negotiating a second round of back pay for the third, fourth, and fifth years its members worked without a contract. The outcome of that negotiation is being closely watched by more than educators, since it will likely establish a bargaining pattern for more than 150 municipal labor contracts that the city is looking to settle in the coming months.

On the table: City officials have said they simply can’t afford to pay an initial $3.4 billion round of back pay as a lump sum. On top of that, de Blasio’s aides have reportedly floated a long-term deal that would spread those raises for teachers out over several years instead. (Union insider Peter Goodman recently wrote that both sides may have agreed on a contract that would expire after de Blasio is up for reelection in 2017.)

All teachers currently in the system will get some raise under that plan, though how much will depend on how long they’ve been in the system.

All told, the city could be on the hook more than $8 billion if the city follows that pattern with other unions, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group. Budget analysts say would hurt the city’s fiscal outlook for years to come.

2. Revamping the Absent Teacher Reserve

After pay raises, figuring out what to do with “excessed” teachers who can’t find full-time posts is the biggest sticking point in contract talks. Both sides have long agreed that the current system doesn’t work, but haven’t been able to agree on a solution. New leadership at City Hall could finally break what has been a years-long stalemate.

The issue: The city is paying the salaries of nearly 1,200 teachers without full-time positions. Most were let go from previous jobs because of budget cuts or because their schools were closed, and others have received low ratings on their evaluations or were let go for disciplinary reasons. Last year, the city said that pool cost an estimated $105 million.

Many newly-excessed teachers find new posts quickly. But as of last spring, 59 percent of ATR members had been in the pool for two or more years, according to Department of Education data.

To the Bloomberg administration, and groups now pushing its agenda, the ATR pool is made up of weak teachers who should be removed from the city’s payroll. But educators contend there are plenty of competent teachers in the pool who could be contributing in schools if they were given a legitimate chance.

“It is a complete waste of such talent that these people are not being used in schools right now,” Mulgrew said in a radio interview in February.

The issue, some say, is a hiring system that means veteran teachers, with their higher salaries, are more likely to be passed over by principals who want to save money and hire new teachers.

“One principal cut short an interview by telling me that she would not hire me because I was tenured and too set in my ways,” Jonathan Joseph, who wrote on Chalkbeat this week that he was in the ATR pool for three years before finding a new job. “Another admitted to me that she liked me and my resume, but it was cheaper to hire a Teaching Fellow.”

On the table: In the past, Bloomberg and Mulgrew flirted with the idea of offering a buyout to long-term excessed teachers, but as their relationship deteriorated in the administration’s waning years, so did the possibility of an agreement.

Bloomberg’s final buyout offer last fall included no perks and just a four-month time limit for ATRs to find a job before getting laid off, which officials said would save the city at least $63 million each year.

But the proposed solutions have changed in dramatic ways since de Blasio took office, sources say.

Negotiators aren’t discussing ways to get rid of excessed teachers, some sources say. They’re instead focused on returning them to classrooms for longer-term teaching assignments—they currently rotate among schools weekly—and on finding ways to incentivize principals to hire from the pool.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has repeatedly insisted that she’ll protect principals’ power to hire the teachers they want—a principle known as “mutual consent hiring.” What’s still unclear is how teachers could be matched with schools and what kinds of incentives Fariña might offer principals.

Up next: tackling teacher evaluations and training time.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.