draining the pool

NYC’s plan to place teachers from its Absent Teacher Reserve pool could take a bite out of school budgets

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
The group StudentsFirstNY staged a rally this summer to protest the city's plan to place educators in the Absent Teacher Research in schools with job openings.

When city officials announced a plan to place hundreds of teachers without permanent positions into classroom vacancies this fall, an immediate question arose: Could schools afford them?

That’s a critical question because the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve, has historically been made up of teachers who are more senior than average, and therefore more expensive. Some principals say that makes an already bitter pill — having a teacher they didn’t choose — even tougher to swallow.

What we do know: Under the new policy, schools will incur the full cost of the new hires, without incentives the city has provided in the past.

And over the last school year, these teachers cost the city a total of $151.6 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That means, on average, each of the 1,304 teachers in the pool last fall received $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits. By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher is $54,000. The city has said that roughly 400 teachers would be placed into open slots this fall.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Per city policy, a school’s budget for staff is based on its number of teachers and the average of their salaries. During a new hire’s first year, his or her salary isn’t factored into the school’s average teacher salary. But after that year, it is. Since a school’s budget is capped based on the number and type of students it serves, if a school’s average salary goes up, principals could be forced to cut from other parts of their budgets to fund personnel.

“If you hire a senior person, the first year, you have no effect, but the second year that affects your average,” said Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the city’s principals union. “So it does catch up to you.”

But Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, isn’t buying it. “Principals have historically exaggerated the impact on their school budget of hiring someone from the ATR pool,” he said in a statement. “We have found the impact of hiring a more experienced teacher, whether from the open market or the ATR pool, does not derail a school budget.”

Ironically, this is an issue the UFT set out to tackle in its 2014 contract with the Department of Education. A provision in the contract states that schools that hire an ATR teacher would not have that teacher’s salary included in the school’s average teacher salary calculation. That agreement stood for both the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years.

“Principals no longer have a reason to pass over more senior educators in favor of newer hires with lower salaries,” the UFT promised in a statement on the 2014 contract posted online.

During the 2016–17 school year, the DOE also offered two options for subsidizing the salaries of ATR members. The first subsidized the costs of permanent ATR hires by 50 percent the first year and 25 percent the next. The second allowed principals to have the full cost of the teacher’s salary subsidized for the 2016–17 year. Ultimately, a total of 372 teachers were hired with those incentives last year.

But starting in the upcoming school year, neither of those policies will be in place. Schools will not receive the incentives and the salaries of ATR teachers will be included in a school’s average teacher salary once they are permanently hired.

The UFT declined to comment on the apparent flip-flop, and neither the UFT nor the city’s Department of Education could estimate the average number of years of experience of teachers in the pool.

According to city education department officials, the majority of most schools’ budgets can be used at principals’ discretion. For example, principals can choose to hire more newly minted teachers, or a smaller number of veteran teachers. Or, they can hire fewer teachers overall and use the remaining money on things such as professional development or after-school programs, the officials said.

But critics say forced placement of teachers takes some of that freedom away from principals. Multiple principals said that, because new hires do not alter a school’s budget until the second year, some of their peers might be tempted to rate ATRs placed into their school “ineffective” so as to not have to hire them permanently and cause their average teacher salary to rise.

Under the city’s new policy, ATR teachers placed by the city only become permanent hires if they are given a “highly effective” or “effective” rating in the observation portion of their evaluation at the end of their first year in a school.

At the very least, one Bronx principal said, he’d be wary of the hire. “If someone automatically puts an ATR into my school,” he said, “I would go in there and observe them quite a bit.”

City education officials said it isn’t so easy to rig an evaluation since it relies on a “well-defined rubric based on evidence.” In general, they noted, budget concerns are likely misplaced.

“The number and salary of teachers at a given school changes significantly as schools do regular hiring from year to year,” said one official. “We work with schools to ensure they have the budget to fund the teachers they hire.”

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”