explainer

The real but misunderstood incentive to remove senior teachers

Do New York City principals have a financial incentive to get rid of veteran teachers?

That’s been a fiercely disputed accusation as the teachers union and city have traded shots over layoff threats in recent weeks. While the union embraces the claim as evidence that senior teachers need to be protected from layoffs, Chancellor Cathie Black denies that senior teachers are penalized at all.

Black recently told the Staten Island Advance that if a highly paid teacher is let go, a principal can go out and hire another veteran teacher without any repercussions. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s a more senior teacher making more money, or a younger teacher,” she told the newspaper. “It doesn’t change the equation. I think the UFT has really distorted that.”

The dispute is even more confusing because different Bloomberg administration officials appear to take different positions on the matter. According to a report in the New York Post, one of Black’s deputies has described the incentive structure as a problem and floated a plan to eliminate it, at least temporarily.

So again: Do New York City schools have a financial incentive to get rid of veteran teachers?

The truth is that the rules do favor less experienced and thereby cheaper teachers — but principals are so limited in firing decisions that it’s hard for them to maneuver more expensive, veteran teachers off of their budgets.

Currently, teachers are laid off citywide based on how many years they’ve been teaching and how desirable their license area is. Excessing — when principals have to cut teachers because they can’t afford them — works the same way except it happens by seniority within the school, not the entire city.

But a change introduced in 2007 to the way schools are funded inserted a new dynamic into the teacher job market.

Fair Student Funding

Since 2007, New York City has used “Fair Student Funding,” a formula that allocates money to schools based on how many students they have and what their students are like. Schools get different amounts of money if they have more special education students, how severe their students’ disabilities are, how many of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a host of other factors.

Though some teachers’ salaries are paid for centrally (such as speech teachers) and others are paid with Title I money, schools pay for most of their teachers with their Fair Student Funding dollars. Those funds are the least restrictive and the most abundant.

Before Fair Student Funding, schools paid for their teachers differently. Based on a teacher-to-student ratio, the city would centrally decide that a school needed to have X number of teachers. To fill those X number of positions, principals could hire low or high-salaried teachers — it didn’t matter which — because they were only charged for the citywide average salary.

If a school in Staten Island hired teachers in the $80,000 a year range and a school in the South Bronx hired beginner teachers making $40,000, both schools were charged the same amount of money per teacher — the average of $60,000. This system tended to hurt schools in poorer neighborhoods that couldn’t attract more experienced teachers. They had to share the costs of other schools’ experienced teachers, but they didn’t benefit from those teachers’ work.

When Fair Student Funding was put in place, city officials wanted to charge schools for the actual cost of their teachers, but they didn’t want to abruptly switch from one system to the next. Doing so would have the reverse effect of the formula at the time: it would hurt the schools where experienced teachers wanted to work by having teacher salaries swallow up their entire budgets. Instead, they moved to a “middle ground,” as a city document describes it.

That middle ground means that the city no longer gives schools money for teachers according to a formula. Fair Student Funding dollars form a pot of money for covering teacher salaries, and the effective price of each teacher is not the average salary of all teachers in the city — but the average salary of all teachers at the school.

Shifting the average from the city to the school changed some of the incentives working on principals. If before principals didn’t have to consider a teacher’s salary before hiring her, now they have reason to pay attention.

Today, School A and School B are no longer paying the same amount per teacher. Imagine they both have annual budgets of about $1 million and 10 teachers each. School A has more senior teachers, bumping its average teacher salary up to around $75,000. Meanwhile School B has newer teachers, keeping its average teacher salary down around $50,000. School A has to spend $750,000 a year on teacher salaries, whereas School B is spending $500,000, freeing up money for after-school programs and classroom supplies.

Consequences

The funding structure means that schools hit hardest by layoffs will also see their average teacher salaries jump the most — and their ability to hire new teachers from the pool of those available within the city will suffer.

If teacher ratings become a factor in layoffs, union leaders worry that principals might have a financial incentive to give veteran teachers low ratings, even if those teachers wouldn’t otherwise merit them. This would bring down the cost of all the teachers in their building for the following year, when budgets could become even tighter.

To some principals, the suggestion that their hiring is driven by dollars is an oversimplification.

“Your only consideration can’t just be money,” the principal of a new school told me.

“A good teacher, a teacher who has a history of experience and knowledge to share and can be a mentor — they’re worth every penny. The difference in salary is negligible when you’re looking at what they’re really bringing to the table,” she said.

But schools’ average teacher costs, and the incentive principals have to keep them low, are enough of an issue that some people in the Department of Education are trying to think of a solution. In a memo to Chancellor Black, Deputy Chancellor John White proposed freezing schools’ average teacher salaries for the next two years.

“That would mean schools that let go of highly paid staff would see no greater flexibility in spending than they see now,” he wrote.

Under White’s plan, the incentive to lay off expensive teachers would be put on hold for two years because during this time, regardless of who principals lay off, their average teacher salaries would remain the same. His plan is still under consideration, a city official said.

A Manhattan principal, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the problem with this idea is that few principals believe the DOE will maintain the same policy for two years. If principals lay off teachers with no eye to salary and then the city changes its mind, schools could find themselves with tighter budgets and high teacher costs. “There’s not much trust between us and the DOE,” she said.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”