Politics & Policy

A ‘told you so’ about breakaway school districts leaves out urban district left behind

PHOTO: Jim Weber / The Commercial Appeal
Students, teachers and parents gather for the Pledge of Allegiance outside Lakeland Middle Preparatory School during a dedication ceremony for the new school.

“About time for suburbs to chant ‘Told you so’ to doubters of municipal school districts,” reads a headline from The Commercial Appeal column “Outside the Loop.”

The column points to several success stories from the six districts that pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014, especially the new school buildings going up in the growing districts.

But the column’s focus on how the districts overcame opposition leaves out important context — and some readers took issue with measuring success in infrastructure without taking into account how the exodus affected the urban school district left behind.

“The Commercial Appeal measures success by the number of buildings built, not the real harm done to children across the community, so by that measure, suburban schools are a success,” Wendi C. Thomas, a longtime Memphis journalist, said in a Facebook post linking to the column.

The columnist, Clay Bailey, who is also a reporter covering Bartlett and other suburban areas, wrote:

And whether naysayers agree with the enabling legislation creating municipal districts or court rulings opening the way or agreements that secured the bulk of the campuses within the suburban boundaries, the districts are preparing to start their fourth school year after secession from Shelby County Schools.

And quite successfully, despite the resistance from outside forces.”

There were many questions and concerns following the pullout of those six districts. But those largely focused on how the “de-merger” would affect the large school district left behind — not whether or not the more wealthy suburbs could financially make it on their own.

The suburban districts believed they could in part because there is more tax revenue concentrated in the suburbs.

That’s been a flashpoint for years. In recent decades, as property values increased in the suburbs, legacy Shelby County Schools — the now-nonexistent suburban district that included the six municipalities — was sending more and more of its revenue to Memphis schools, irking suburban officials who sought a way to keep those dollars local.

Their solution was to create a new, special school district — which prompted city school leaders to give up their charter to merge with the suburban district, and then the six districts to secede in response.

And though Shelby County Schools is headed into a new era of relative financial stability, district leaders still say the six-district pullout is one of many factors that have chipped away at resources available to the schools left behind.

That’s the history. More recently, the six municipal school districts were recently cast into the national spotlight as the “most egregious example” of more wealthy mostly white suburban districts seceding from urban districts of poorer minority students in a national report in June.

Bailey’s column faced some tough criticism online.

“Of course a segregated district is thriving,” said activist and educator Tami Sawyer in a Facebook post linking to the article. “Don’t act like y’all won the academic bowl. You’re thriving because due to white privilege you removed yourself from the ‘urban’ district and yet still get windfall from being formerly connected. Not to mention, no one was naysayers in the vein of thinking it couldn’t be done. They were naysayers in saying this is racially motivated and wrong.”

The triumphant tone from the reporter who regularly covers municipalities for the local newspaper did not sit will with Mark Hansen, chairman of the Collierville school board.

The column also drew praise from members of a few Facebook groups dedicated to discussing suburban school issues.

PHOTO: Facebook

Bailey declined to comment.

Correction, Aug. 4, 2017: A previous version of this story said Clay Bailey is an editor overseeing suburban coverage. As of March, Bailey was no longer an editor. 

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“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.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.