draining the atr pool

Excessed teacher pool hits five-year low, but not because of more hiring

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.

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