Politics & Policy

Cosby, the IPS board’s main dissenter, says she won’t run for re-election

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Board member Gayle Cosby speaks during an IPS school board meeting in May.

Gayle Cosby, often the lone of critic on the Indianapolis Public School Board of the district’s ambitious reform plans, today announced that she will not seek re-election.

The news has some asking if her departure at the end of 2016 will diminish open public discussion of doubts about the district’s fast pace toward a completely overhauled school system.

Cosby has tried the patience of some of her fellow board members, and some hinted the board might be better off without her. But community leaders who share some of Cosby’s concerns about the district’s planned changes — which include giving more freedom to principals, shrinking the central office and partnering more often with charter school networks — say a board without dissenters like Cosby cannot genuinely represent the families IPS serves.

“People are left out,” said Diana Daniels, Executive Director of the Indianapolis-based National Council on Educating Black Children. “There are (people) who are not in favor of charter schools, and their voice also needs to be heard.”

It’s certainly possible the election will produce candidates who are less strongly aligned to the board majority. Voting is months away and it’s not yet clear if the other three pro-reform incumbents facing election this year will run. Board member Sam Odle said he plans to run. Michael O’Connor, appointed to fill an unexpired term, has not yet decided. Diane Arnold also is undecided about her re-election plans.

If the last two elections are any guide, defeating candidates who back the current reform plan will be tough to beat. All of the winning candidates in 2012 and 2014 overwhelmingly outpaced rivals who expressed reservations about the district’s direction, fueled by unprecedentedly huge contributions from pro-reform groups and individuals.

Even Cosby got money from reform-minded organizations when she ran in 2012, calling for a change of direction for IPS. But as a board member, she grew increasingly critical of some policies supported by the rest of the board, particularly partnering with outside organizations to manage persistently failing IPS schools.

Cosby said her decision not to run was linked to starting a doctoral program in urban education. The board is too time consuming for her to commit to another four-year term, she said.

“I feel that my voice, in terms of raising some critical questions, has been very important,” Cosby said. “I’m hopeful that others will emerge in the election cycle for this year that will bring those same qualities to the table.”

But not everyone has appreciated Cosby’s point of view, or her approach to debating her fellow board members.

Board member Kelly Bentley, for one, said Cosby’s role as the primary voice of criticism is oversold. Other board members also ask tough questions, Bentley said, but they do so at school board meetings. Cosby often took to her personal blog to air her complaints.

“I’m not sure that it’s that much of a loss,” Bentley said. “We’re all asking those types of questions; we’re just not blogging about it.”

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan said she also is not worried about the board’s ability to hear all points of view. In fact, she thought changes on the board could improve discussions about the district’s future.

“If the trust level is improved, then perhaps the dialogue can be more robust,” she said.

But one former board member has her doubts.

Without the big political contributions that reform advocates have been getting, former IPS board president Annie Roof said she thinks it’s now impossible for opposition candidates to win school board seats. Roof lost her seat to Sullivan, who raised thousands of dollars more for her campaign in 2014. 

“When I ran the first time (in 2010), school board campaigns were funded by sitting around at a kitchen table,” she said.

But today, “money is very powerful,” Roof said.

Roof said she has no interest in running in 2016. The 2014 election was too stressful for her family, she said.

The high-cost of running for an IPS Board seat also worries Chrystal Ratcliffe, president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP. Low-income citizens, like many families served by IPS schools, can’t raise the money to field a winning campaign, she said.

“Are poverty-stricken people going to have access to that kind of money? Where does that money come from?” Ratcliffe said. “We advocate for our poverty-stricken people, the people who are disenfranchised.”

The NAACP is not necessarily opposed to efforts to make big changes in IPS schools, Ratcliffe said. But she said parents and other community members need more opportunities to learn about the shifts on the horizon and give feedback before decisions are made.

“Those ideas are not getting around to the community the way they should,” she said. “Our communities are left out … of the decision making process as far as being able to give some insight on the experiences they’ve had that could maybe make this work better.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.