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.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.