longer-term solution (updated)

City-union deal restores ATRs to long-term substitute positions

Teachers without positions who have been cycling through different schools each week will be assigned to more stable positions again, according to a deal that the city and UFT struck a month ago.

Under the terms of a different deal struck to avert teacher layoffs in 2011, the city last year sent members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, teachers whose positions had been eliminated, to different schools each week. The purpose of the rotation system, city and union officials said at the time, was to reduce spending on substitute teachers and increase the chances of ATRs landing a permanent job.

But the union found that some principals were filling their long-term absences with regular substitutes instead of allowing ATRs to cycle into them, according to union officials, in less extreme examples of improprieties alleged at Fort Hamilton High School. The practice let principals maintain control over their staff and allowed them to avoid hiring ATRs, whom former Chancellor Joel Klein characterized as “teachers who either don’t care to, or can’t, find a job.”

So the union filed a grievance against the city over the rotation system. The city agreed to negotiate policy changes rather than contest the grievance and risk having changes imposed by an arbitrator.

The main change, city officials say, is that any absence of longer than 29 days will be filled automatically, at least at first, by a member of the ATR pool. Previously, ATRs were supposed to fill “long-term absences,” but that term wasn’t defined, so it often did not happen.

So starting next week, ATRs will be assigned to fill absences of 30 days or more when the vacancy is in their geographic and license areas. Only if there is no appropriate long-term placement will the teachers continue to work as itinerant substitutes.

Had the arrangement been in effect last year, few of the 800 ATRs at the time would have had to rotate schools, UFT President Michael Mulgrew told GothamSchools last week. The pool has expanded since then because schools cut some positions over the summer and at the start of the year, when enrollment declines became apparent.

But Department of Education officials say the rule tweak would have had little impact last year and are telling principals that the changes are minimal.

“Although the [changes] provide schools with greater clarity and flexibility around the use of ATRs, it is important to remember that the core intent of the agreement has not changed,” Deputy Chancellor David Weiner wrote in a letter to principals this week. “The ATR rotation process is intended to avoid layoffs and generate cost savings, while also providing greater exposure for ATRs to schools and helping facilitate their search for a school-level position (whether regular appointed or provisional).”

The agreement does curtail principals’ discretion to choose who fills in for teachers on leave, in a departure for the city, which has famously considered principals to be the “CEOs of their buildings” for years.

But principals retain veto power over the department’s placements. They can elect to send back an ATR sent to their schools at any point and can use a regular substitute until another ATR is cycled in.

Teachers in the ATR pool criticized the rotation system for unfairly stigmatizing them and preventing them from making use of their expertise as educators. But union officials said the system had to some degree accomplished its goals: Over the course of the year, hundreds of teachers exited the pool for permanent positions.

This story has been updated to reflect the Department of Education’s characterization of the policy change and to clarify that the change affects absences of 29 days or longer only.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede