After a round of buyouts this summer and no school closures starting this year, the number of excessed teachers who remained on the city’s payroll at the start of the school year was smaller than it had been for the last five years, according to figures released on Friday.

But that still left 1,676 teachers without full-time positions when the school year got underway in September, according to the Department of Education, which released the figures. The teachers are part of a so-called absent teacher reserve pool because their positions were eliminated due to budget cuts and school closures, although some were removed for disciplinary reasons.

As of this week, that number had shrank by another 505 teachers after principals filled last-minute vacancies this fall. But even more teachers left the ATR pool during the same period last year, raising questions about whether a new hiring system under Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio has made much of a dent so far.

The ATR pool represents a significant expense to the city because the teachers do not hold full-time positions in schools and their salaries and benefits must be paid for out of the Department of Education’s central budget. Though they save some money by filling in as substitutes, the city estimated that it spent $105 million on the pool’s members in 2013.

The pool first formed in 2006 out of an agreement between the city and the teachers union to give principals more say over hiring decisions. Previously, open positions typically went to teachers with the most experience who wanted the job.

Each year, the pool swelled with new teachers from schools that were shuttering or downsizing, while some languished for years without a new full-time position. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of ATRs in September grew from 788 teachers to an all-time high of 1,957.

The Absent Teacher Reserve pool is at its lowest level since 2009 (Source: TNTP and Chalkbeat reports)
The Absent Teacher Reserve pool was at its lowest September level since 2009. (Source: Chalkbeat reports, TNTP and Department of Education)

The growing labor issue also became a source of heated debate.

The Bloomberg administration said that the pool was mostly made up of weak or lazy teachers who should be removed from city payroll if they couldn’t find a job. Others, including United Federation of Teachers President Mulgrew, Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio, have said the hiring system under Bloomberg did not do enough to help competent teachers find positions. And older teachers contend that principals won’t hire them because their higher salaries cost too much and want younger teachers on staff.

Friday’s release was the first information that the department has provided about the ATR pool since the school year started. In August, officials announced that 97 teachers were removed from the city’s payroll as part of a buyout package that cost $1.8 million.

Officials for both the city and the teachers union said that the lower numbers were a sign that a new agreement aimed at reducing the pool was working. In addition to the buyout, the deal allowed teachers to interview at more schools, while also providing ways to remove teachers who don’t show up for interviews or are documented for misconduct.

“Through the teacher’s contract we have been able to keep more of our best teachers in the classroom while reducing the number of teachers in the ATR pool compared to the same time last year,” Fariña said in a statement.

But a year-over-year comparison of the first three months of the school year, based on numbers provided by the department on Friday, do not seem to fully support that claim. Since September, 505 teachers left the ATR pool compared with 560 teachers last year.

The ATR pool is also made up of other school staff represented by the UFT, including social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists. Their totals shrank from 366 in September of 2013 to 336 this year, and emptied by another 87 as of December.

It’s unclear how many teachers and staff who exited the pool this year have been hired compared to last year. That breakdown was not provided by the department and a spokeswoman said the information was not available.

Aside from the buyouts, one reason the pool shrank before the school year started is because fewer teaching jobs were eliminated in June as a result of no new schools being closed. De Blasio has said he does not want to close any more schools until they are given a chance to improve, which means that the ATR pool is likely to continue to decrease on its own as teachers find jobs, resign, take leave, or retire.