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.”

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year