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.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.