draining the pool

Five things we still don’t know about who is in New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve

A new city policy that will place hundreds of teachers without permanent positions back into classrooms this fall has revived a longstanding debate over forced placement — and raised questions about the teachers themselves.

Who are they? What are their track records like? Are they even certified to take open jobs? The truth is, we know very little about the teachers in the pool.

The Absent Teacher Reserve originated with the 2005 union contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first term in office. The contract ended a policy of placing teachers whose positions had been eliminated into other jobs — sometimes forcing other teachers with less seniority out of their schools. Instead, teachers without regular positions were placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve at full salary.

The approach became a problem after school closures and financial recession swelled the pool’s size, and the city has been trying to reduce the pool ever since — through rotating the teachers into temporary positions, offering buyouts and incentives for schools, and now what critics see as a return to forced placement. The city said it would place roughly 400 teachers into vacancies in October. The plan has drawn an outcry from some principals who say it infringes on their authority, and could hurt their budgets.

There’s no way to fully predict the impact of the policy without knowing more about the teachers themselves. The city’s education department and teachers union have been unwilling or unable to share data on the pool, despite multiple Chalkbeat requests. We’ve also filed a public records request with the city that is still pending.

Here are the five main things we’re eager to learn about the current ATR pool.

What is the average years of experience among teachers in the pool?

To estimate the potential impact of an ATR placement on a school’s budget, one would need to know how senior the teachers are.

We know that over the last school year, the ATR pool 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 as of last October received $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher is $54,000.)

Historically, the ATR pool has been comprised of teachers who are, as a group, more experienced than their peers.

Data from 2010 showed that teachers with 15 to 25 years of experience made up 31 percent of the ATR pool, as compared to 19 percent of all active teachers. In comparison, more junior teachers were underrepresented in the pool — 13 percent, compared to 29 percent of all active teachers.

What percentage of ATR teachers are in the pool for disciplinary reasons?

Unlike the infamous “rubber rooms,” which were used for teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings and were formally phased out under Bloomberg, the ATR pool is not designed for teachers who have been accused or implicated in misconduct. It is meant for teachers whose jobs were eliminated or schools were closed. But some joined after disciplinary proceedings.

A 2014 report from the advocacy group TNTP estimated that 25 percent of teachers in the ATR pool then had been brought up on disciplinary charges.

The Department of Education could not estimate how many teachers now fall into each group. It also has not made clear whether any of the ATR teachers placed into schools this coming fall could have backgrounds of misconduct.

“The DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement, and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past,” said officials in the city’s education department.

How long have the teachers been in the ATR pool?

Even if teachers are strong performers when excessed from their schools, one principal told us, the time they spend outside the classroom and in the ATR could be harmful, since they are unlikely to receive the same professional development as teachers in full-time positions.

We do not know how long, on average, individual teachers have been in the pool. According to data from the 2014 TNTP report, half of the teachers in the pool at that point had not held a classroom position in at least two years. That proportion is likely to have grown as more teachers have exited the pool on their own, but the city has not made that information available.

Where have ATR teachers worked in the past?

Prior to the city’s announcement that it would be placing teachers from the ATR into classroom vacancies for yearlong positions this fall, ATR teachers were rotated through schools on a monthly basis. “ATRs have been assigned to schools based on short- and long-term need,” city officials said. But we don’t have the list of schools where they were sent.

That matters because some critics have raised concerns that the teachers would be placed primarily in low-income areas of the city, in the struggling schools likely to suffer most from teacher vacancies.

What areas are ATR teachers certified in?

Another question is whether members of the ATR hold certifications that make them difficult to place. Data from 2010 showed that almost 25 percent of ATR teachers then held licenses to teach courses such as swimming, jewelry-making, and accounting, among other subjects that have almost entirely disappeared from public schools.

We do not currently have the breakdown of licenses held by teachers in the pool. That number could be important in showing what percentage of teachers can, realistically, hope to find permanent positions, and how many might need retraining.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.