draining the atr pool

City data shows number in Absent Teacher Reserve remains steady

The city’s pool of excessed teachers is about the same size as it was this time last year, according to data released by the education department Friday.

The latest numbers show that 1,083 teachers were collecting salaries and benefits without holding full-time positions in schools last month, compared to 1,102 in January 2015. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city teachers union have pledged to reduce the size of the pool, which swelled under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and costs the city millions of dollars each year.

Teachers can be placed into the Absent Teacher Reserve after their job is eliminated at a school or for disciplinary reasons.

The reserve shrunk during de Blasio’s first year in office, and he has said he wants the pool to grow smaller by removing poor teachers from the school system and by helping qualified teachers find jobs. The new union contract included provisions aimed at making it easier for teachers to interview at schools and a buyout offer that 115 teachers and school staff took.

The pool typically shrinks over the course of the school year as teachers find jobs, and the new data shows that the city succeeded in placing about 500 teachers in full-time positions in both fall 2014 and fall 2015. But officials have been less successful at reducing the overall size of the pool.

Still, the education department claimed the numbers as a victory Friday. Officials pointed out that the pool did not increase in size, as it did for years under the Bloomberg administration, and linked the two-year decline to changes in the teacher contract.

“In past years the number of teachers in the ATR pool tended to go up year over year,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “We are glad the overall trend is down and we have been able to maintain that decline this year.”

It remains unclear whether the decline is actually due to the new provisions in the contract. Since January 2014, education department officials said 450 teachers have exited the system. However, they did not provide a breakdown of why those teachers left or how many retired.

Of the 289 teachers that left the school system between April 2014 and February 2015, nearly 200 took buyouts or retired, according to a Chalkbeat analysis last March.

Another reason the pool has stabilized is the de Blasio administration’s aversion to closing schools. Under Bloomberg, the city aggressively closed poor-performing schools, sending excessed teachers who did not immediately find jobs elsewhere into the pool. But de Blasio has announced the city will shutter only three schools this year.

For their part, teachers union officials said they hope the city continues helping excessed teachers find jobs within the city school system.

“It is in everyone’s interest to find permanent positions for all the teachers who want it,” a UFT spokeswoman said.

The numbers released Friday only described classroom teachers and did not include other school workers such as guidance counselors or social workers.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.