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Teachers Paid Not to Teach

Will New York City's public school administrators pander to the teachers' union?

11:00 PM, Nov 11, 2009 • By EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH
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At the end of last month, the New York City teachers' contract expired, opening the door to a series of negotiations between the teachers' union and the city's department of education, led by chancellor Joel Klein. But more than a week into negotiations over the new contract, the talks are ominously quiet.

Though Klein has talked tough on the unions, whether he will actually get concessions on issues like tenure, merit-based pay, and what's known as the "absent teacher reserve" pool will soon be determined. That last point, in particular, reached a boiling point this past summer when the Department of Education instituted a hiring freeze that excluded talented new hires from getting teaching jobs--showing how necessary it is for the new contract to handle the ATR in a satisfactory way.

The ATR, or "absent teacher reserve," excess pool is a pool of teachers that were let go by their schools' principals. At its peaked, it numbered 3,000 this past summer. Though these teachers were let go, they still received their salaries and benefits thanks to the 2006 union contract.

One measure that Klein wants to see implemented in the new contract is limits on the amount of time a teacher can spend in the excess pool. After a nine month or so period, ideally, the teacher will no longer be on the city's payroll. Today, they could stay in the excess pool until Armageddon. Some teachers even get tenure while they're in the excess pool.

If each teacher received only the equivalent of a first-year teaching salary, 45,530 dollars, the Department of Education was paying at least $136,590,000 to maintain the excess pool--a significant sunk cost. As of September, about 1,400 teachers were still sitting jobless waiting to receive their paychecks.

"Excessed" teachers were either let go because their schools were downsizing or simply shut down, or because the principals were looking for ways to cut their budget. "Even with federal stimulus funds, we had a 400 million dollar gap between expenses and revenue," said Ann Forte, spokeswoman for the New York's department of education. The result? "Schools budgets were trimmed 3.8% on average."

The upshot of the budget cuts is that most schools in New York City experienced a hiring freeze at the beginning of this school year, or what Teach for America's Jemina Bernard delicately called, "restrictions on hiring." For the most part, schools could hire internally, from teachers already on the Department of Education's payroll--meaning that in many cases, principals must hire from the excess pool, passing over the very talented recruits of Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows.

But Klein has repeatedly said that he wants fresh blood entering the school system.
Teach for America, which usually places 550 teacher recruits in public schools by the first day of school, only took on 320 this year, anticipating the Department of Education's budget cuts, caused provisions of the 2006 contract. Still, Bernard was able to place many of her recruits in schools in large part because of some "exceptions" to the hiring freeze.

For instance, charter schools were not affected by the hiring freeze, nor were new schools less than three years old. Also, in the sciences--except for biology--and in special education, principals could continue to hire from external sources, since not enough "excessed" teachers are qualified to teach in those two areas. The Department of Education, for instance, hired only 1,700 new teachers this year--compared to last year's 5,600--and 1,200 of those new hires were in special education and the sciences.

Despite these welcomed exceptions to the hiring freeze, the ATR still is a cause of concern. Teachers in the ATR are "excessed" based on seniority, meaning that least senior teachers are the ones principals must let go first. The highly mobile teachers market ensures that principals who need to fill vacancies will quickly snap up good teachers in the excess pool. One victory of the 2006 contract was abolition of the "seniority transfer," which ensured that senior teachers could walk into a school and get a job. Today, thanks to the city's education chancellor Joel Klein, that same contract allows principals to choose the teachers coming into their schools.