draining the pool

New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve could get pricier as teachers collect raises, bonuses

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

The controversial Absent Teacher Reserve is set to become even more expensive for New York City as educators in the pool build years of experience and earn bonuses.

That’s according to a report released Thursday by the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, which estimates the reserve will cost $136 million this school year.

The reserve is comprised of teachers who don’t have a permanent position because their schools were closed, or because they face legal or disciplinary problems. Many serve as roving substitute but others do deskwork or administrative tasks — or, critics say, nothing at all — while collecting a full salary.

The commission dug into the costs of the reserve just as the city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers is set to expire in November, and the report adds to calls for the city to negotiate major changes regarding teachers in the pool.

“We as taxpayers have to ask: Are we going to ensure their payment and job protection indefinitely?” said Maria Doulis, Vice President of the Commission. “I think, for most people, that answer is no.”

But that is easier said than done, with the union fighting hard to keep job protections for its teachers. In response to the report, a UFT spokeswoman said that the commission should be “checking its numbers” and argued the reserve actually saves the Department of Education money.

“Teachers are assigned to schools to replace other teachers out on medical or other leave, which allows the DOE to save tens of millions of dollars each year on the cost of hiring long-term substitutes,” the union said in an emailed statement.

Here are highlights from the commission’s report.

The average ATR is more experienced and earns a higher salary than other teachers.

Teachers in the reserve have an average of 18 years of experience and earn a salary of $98,126, according to the committee. Across the system, teachers are slightly less experienced, with about 10 years in the classroom, and make $84,108.

The report finds that paychecks have increased for teachers in the reserve, compared with city figures that were released in summer 2017. Ana Champeny, who oversees city budget analyses for the committee and authored the ATR report, said that’s likely because educators continue to collect salary boosts and bonuses just like any other teacher.

“That’s increasing the cost to the city,” she said. “And it’ll get even more expensive as more raises are awarded.”

In the meantime, a 3 percent salary increase goes into effect this week, under the terms of the city’s current contract with the UFT. With the boost, educators with 18 years of service will earn an extra $14,084 total.

Still, the commission’s report found that the Absent Teacher Reserve overall will cost less than previous years. Figures from the Independent Budget Office show that the city spent almost $152 million on the pool in the 2016-17 school year — $16 million more than this year’s estimate. The reduction could be because there are about 100 fewer educators in the reserve this year compared with Oct. 2016.

The city has saved millions through efforts to drain the reserve.

The reserve was created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a bid to give principals more control to hire their own staff, scuttling union rules that previously allowed senior teachers who were laid off by their current school to transfer into new positions.

At the beginning of this school year, the budget committee found that 1,202 teachers were in the reserve. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to cut the pool in half, partially by offering severance payments to entice teachers to leave the system.

Many teachers took a deal offered this year: A lump sum payment of $50,000. The commission found that 170 teachers opted for the buyouts — costing the city $8.5 million. Still, the city will save $23 million a year by offering the payments, according to the report.

The de Blasio administration has tried to drain the reserve in other ways, such as by offering budget incentives to principals who hire from the pool, or placing reserve educators into schools even without principal approval. The latter effort has been controversial — with some principals vowing to hide vacant positions — and not nearly as effective as the city had hoped.

While officials had planned to place 400 teachers from the pool into permanent positions, only 75 openings were filled with reserve teachers. That will generate $7 million in savings by 2020, according to the commission.

But the city should negotiate more substantial changes, the commission argues.

Cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have managed to tamp down on some teacher seniority rights that critics say make it difficult to lower the number of teachers in the reserve. Both cities limit the amount of time a teacher can remain on the payroll while looking for a permanent job.

The commission said New York City should fight for similar measures, and cap a teacher’s stint in the reserve to six months. Past and present administrations have struggled to strike an agreement with the union that would significantly weaken job protections for teachers, but Doulis said that the reserve is likely a priority on the city’s agenda as the two sides hash out an agreement.

“How you get to compromise and work out a solution, that’s a different story,” she said. “But I do think it’s something that will be discussed.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education department will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That request will make Michigan the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.