Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks to business leaders at the Association for a Better New York breakfast.

After years of trying to win new powers to fire under-performing teachers, the city is turning to rights it has had all along.

Speaking to a coalition representing the city’s business elite this morning, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would move to fire any teacher who receives “unsatisfactory” ratings for two years in a row. He also announced that the city would ask the UFT to allow buyouts for teachers who have been without permanent positions for more than a year.

Both policies are already permitted under the law and the city’s contract with the teachers union — a fact that drew ridicule from UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

“It’s theater of the absurd. It’s getting old,” he said. “I think they believe that everyone’s a fool. They’ve made an announcement about something they already have the ability to do.”

Mulgrew noted that the union contract already allows Department of Education officials to do exactly what Walcott’s two plans announced today would do—incentivize teachers without permanent jobs to take buyouts, and require schools to remove teachers who receive consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. He also said the buyout plan was proposed by the union several times over the past three years, but the city rebuffed it.

“In their own minds they’ve convinced themselves they’re out there making news and being bold,” he said, adding that the city should already know the union is willing to negotiate a buyout program. “I don’t know how you can negotiate just by making a speech.”

Negotiations between the city and union over new teacher evaluations broke down in December. Those evaluations would have done away with the current teacher rating system and made it harder for teachers to earn top ratings and would have required the city to try to fire teachers with the lowest ratings.

Walcott said today that the city still wants to adopt new evaluations — and that the new policies would not go into effect if new evaluations are in place by next year — but the announcement shows that the city is seeking a plan B.

The question of how to rid the school system of weak teachers has perplexed the Bloomberg administration for years. The Department’s attempts to fire teachers in the ATR pool when Joel Klein was chancellor fell short, as did efforts to end the last-in-first-out policy that governs which teachers principals can ask to leave schools.

Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, also suggested that the city’s plans were un-novel solutions to a bigger problem: the lack of a teacher evaluation deal.

“These are band aid solutions,” the organization’s founders said in a statement. “The only way to ensure that students are in classrooms with effective teachers is for both sides to finally negotiate a meaningful multi-measure evaluation system that gives educators the support, feedback, and recognition they deserve and need.”

Walcott declined to take questions from reporters, an atypical choice for him, but department officials filled in some details this afternoon.

Of the 831 teachers now in the ATR pool, most would be eligible for the program if it begins this fall, officials said. The program will be open to any teachers who have spent one year or more in the ATR pool, and its start date will be determined during union-city negotiations, which are scheduled to begin next week.

City officials said the buyout offers will be more generous than a similar buyout program that has been used in other cities, including Dallas and D.C.. Depending on their number of years teaching, city teachers can expect to receive offers ranging from $1,000 (for one to five years of teaching) to $20,000 (for 20 years) or more.

According to statistics provided by the city, the average salary for members of the ATR pool is $82,420, plus an average of $30,000 in annual benefits. ATR teachers are expected to actively search for permanent jobs while they are fulfilling their week-to-week assignments. But officials said nearly half of the ATR teachers have not submitted a single city job application or attended a city recruitment event in the past year.

The total cost of the ATR pool has ranged over the years, and the exact figure has been a source of disagreement between city and union officials. But the city has never strayed from its position that the cost is too high.

Other figures the city provided portray the ATR pool in a somewhat bleak light: Nearly a third of its teachers were removed from their last permanent job assignment through some formal disciplinary action, nearly a quarter have been in the pool for two or more years, and nearly one fifth have received at least one U-rating. 

The ATR pool could grow this summer as the city moves to close more schools at once than ever before, and relocate many of their teachers. Department of Education spokesman Matt Mittenthal said the pool has been shrinking this year, perhaps thanks to a policy change that requires ATRs to act as substitute teachers, rotating through schools from week to week. That change has motivated some principals to offer permanent jobs to teachers they may otherwise have never met, but it has also encouraged some teachers to quit their jobs or retire.

But without this extra push from the city, Mittenthal said, “We don’t think the pool is going to get much smaller, given how it is now.”

The city’s second proposal of the morning, to prevent elementary school students from being taught by a U-rated teacher for two years in a row, would affect the student class assignments for 217 elementary school teachers who received U-ratings in 2011. The city is planning to issue some kind of policy guideline to principals that they may not assign the 4,000 students being taught by those teachers this year to another U-rated teacher in the fall.

The third prong of Walcott’s announcement calls for schools to formalize a practice already in use—the removal of classroom teachers who have received U-ratings in the past two years. 235 teachers fit that bill, and half of them are still teaching in permanent classroom jobs. The rest are either in the ATR pool or are awaiting dismissal decisions.

Many of those teachers have appealed their second U-ratings. If the U-rating decisions are upheld after the appeal process, the city will formally see their dismissal. Officials said the DOE currently relies on principals to file these charges against teachers, but principals often decide not to. In the future, the DOE will initiate the dismissal process from its central office.