Adi Talwar

Aixa Rodriguez, an ESL teacher who has been with the DOE since 2005. After her school closed, she spent some time in the Absent Teacher Reserve before being hired by a new school for this fall.

This is the fourth article in a five-part series .

This past summer, most city teachers were prepping new lessons, revising curriculum and readying for the start of the new school year. However, many teachers on the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) were polishing their CVs. This included Aixa Rodriguez, an ESL teacher who has been with the DOE since 2005.

She was previously a teacher at the Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies (FLAGS), which closed at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. Like many teachers after a closure, Rodriguez was placed in the ATR, a pool of DOE educators who lack permanent placements in city schools but remain full-time DOE employees. Rodriguez said many teachers in the pool have a similar story to hers, finding themselves relegated to the list in the aftermath of school’s closure or a program cut.

“If those schools close and those programs get shut down, the teachers get labeled along with it,” she says. “Your resume looks like Swiss cheese. I have friends who have been in the ATR for years.”

After FLAGS’ closure, Rodriguez was hired on a provisional basis to fill in for a year for a teacher on sabbatical, but come the end of the school year she was back seeking a full-time role. Rodriguez, like many others, found herself in a proverbial limbo while in the pool; educators in the ATR are still full-time DOE educators (and are paid as such), but often fill in short-term gaps, covering for teachers during parental leave or medical absences, working as substitute teachers or performing administrative work.

However, critics contend that many of these excessed teachers are saddled with disciplinary issues or are not seeking new full-time teaching positions, content to take the short-term work.

How did the ATR start?

The ATR is a result of 2005 negotiations between the United Federation of Teachers and the Bloomberg administration, who wanted to give school principals greater autonomy in hiring decisions. Prior to these negotiations, senior teachers had a greater say in choosing schools in which they were placed, according to Jeff Kaufman, a computer science teacher at Far Rockaway High School and former member of the UFT’s Executive Board. He described this loss of seniority as a “giveback” by the UFT.

“Principals now control, to a large degree, who is in their school,” he says.

Instead of automatically placing excessed teachers in new schools, the ATR carved out a way for principals to make their own hiring decisions, while excessed teachers were ensured they’d remain on the DOE payroll while seeking a position. Many initially applauded the move as an overdue correction to tenured teachers’ control in their own placement (arguing this often led to experienced educators disproportionately getting jobs in certain schools and districts). Now, most agree that the ATR has led to more problematic consequences, and many teachers in the pool assert many of these consequences were in fact the intention all along.

Two years after the establishment of the ATR pool, the city implemented the Fair Student Funding formula, which recalibrated the way in which the DOE determines how much funding schools receive.The city intended to direct more funding towards schools that had been shortchanged over the decades, but teachers’ salaries were to come primarily from this revised funding on the principal’s discretion (as opposed to the DOE directly paying teachers’ salaries).

Critics argue this incentivizes principals to not hire experienced (and higher-salaried) teachers, leading to an ATR pool that is exceedingly older and growing more expensive by the year; ATR payments cost the city $136 million last year. Rodriguez argues this disincentive and a generalized stigma against ATR teachers is depriving the city of a supply of time-tested educators who could be used in the classroom on a more permanent basis; what’s more, the city is already paying for them.

“A lot of the teachers in the ATR are 40 and up, and have a salary level of $80,000. We have both the time and experience,” she says. “(Principals) just don’t want to pay for them. There are plenty of us in the ATR who are ready and willing to work.”

Experience as a downside

Concrete data on the ATR can be difficult to attain, partially because the pool is constantly in flux; often the pool will balloon at the close of a school year as schools are shuttered and programs are cancelled, only to shrink as some ATR teachers fill open positions come the new school year. In 2017, Chalkbeat reported that 38 percent of ATR teachers were in the pool due to school closures, with another 30 percent in the reserve due to budget or program cuts. Additionally, 32 percent were in the pool due to “ramifications from a legal or disciplinary issue.”

The ATR’s cost continues to grow as the pool grows older and more experienced, according to a recent report from the Citizens Budget Commission. Employees in the ATR pool have been teachers for 18 years on average, compared to the average 10.2 years of the total DOE teacher workforce, and the average ATR salary is $98,126, compared to $84,108 for all teachers.

In 2017, a quarter of teachers on the ATR were also on there five years earlier. Some argue that this indicates teachers are not being hired for full-time positions or are not looking for work, though it is also possible a teacher could have been hired off the pool and subsequently excessed again.

There were 788 teachers in the pool in 2006, during the first year of implementation, but after a spate of school closures during the Bloomberg administration that number grew exponentially; at the start of the 2014 school year, there were 1,676 teachers in the pool. That number dropped to 1,202 at the start of 2018, but the Panel of Education Policy closed 10 schools at the end of last year. School closures usually lead to an expanding ATR pool, according to Leonie Haimson, a parent advocate and the founder and executive director of Class Size Matters.

“It’s extremely damaging to the quality of education in the city, and it’s detrimental to students getting a sound, basic education,” she says. “For every teacher you get off ATR, you’re creating hundreds of new teachers on ATR when you close their schools. I don’t understand it at all. It’s as though the system is designed to fail.”

Additionally, while as many as a third of educators on the ATR have faced a disciplinary issue, what that designation entails remains opaque. According to the UFT, tenured teachers in the ATR are allowed a hearing before an independent arbitrator when accused by a principal of misbehavior. However, a teacher may end up in the ATR pool regardless of the outcome of any disciplinary process, according to Kaufman.

A tenured teacher may be the recipient of 3020-a charges (which challenge the protections a tenured teacher has and can be a first step towards dismissal). Those charges could be sustained (potentially resulting in termination), but they can also be mediated through arbitration or could even be dismissed altogether. However, even in the cases of dismissal, if a principal opposes reinstating a teacher in the original school that teacher could be excessed and placed in the ATR pool. A teacher would have to ‘grieve’ their status in the ATR to be reinstated over the wishes of the principal in the original school, and Kaufman said he had never seen a successful grievance in such instances.

“Anytime a principal has opposed the return of a teacher, the principal has always won out,” he says. “That stuff starts to get internalized. It clearly impacts on someone’s ability to teach, and if you’ve been on it for a long time there’s a lot of issues. I’ve seen a lot of excellent teachers, lauded in all different ways, and they end up on the ATR and all they can do is end up retiring.”

Ana Champeny, the Director of City Studies for the Citizens Budget Commission and the author of the report on the ATR, noted that the pool’s structure, coupled with New York State’s protracted disciplinary process, could lead principals to see the ATR as an alternative method for dealing with unwanted teachers.

“The process to remove a teacher for cause is incredibly complex, and it’s set in state education law. It’s very time-consuming,” she says. “The ATR can create this unintended incentive—it can mean you can get people into the ATR instead of this long process.”

Still, most ATR teachers are not in the pool because of a disciplinary matter, and some teachers in the pool believe principals shy away from hiring ATR teachers because of the cost involved. Principals may also want to hire inexperienced teachers whom they may feel will be more amenable to that principal’s particular vision, according to James Eterno, a DOE educator who entered the classroom in 1986 and retired last year. After Jamaica High School closed in 2014, he found himself excessed into the ATR pool, and strongly disagrees with how ATR teachers are treated by the DOE and by the principals weighing whether or not they should be hired. Camille Eterno, a high school teacher and James’ wife, is currently in the ATR pool, and said that principals indeed considered ATR teachers differently than other prospective hires.

“The sentiment is that you’re an ATR and they run in the other direction,” she says. “You’re less desirable because you have years of experience. They’re choosing to hire people fresh out of college.”
James Eterno agreed, saying principals often will not even consider ATR educators with years (or decades) of experience because of the higher salaries.

“I don’t blame you for not wanting to hiring me. I understand; I cost a lot of money. But it shouldn’t be like that,” he says. “Could you imagine if a police captain couldn’t bring in a great detective because they were too high up on the salary scale? That would be outrageous, and I don’t think the public would tolerate it.”

However, some criticize the teachers in the pool, bemoaning the fact that they have full-time salaries without permanent classroom placement. Dan Weisberg, the executive director of The New Teacher Project, said he would question placing ATR educators in classrooms, arguing that too many had significant past disciplinary issues. He also disputed the idea that principals avoid hiring experienced ATR teachers.

“If principals saw a strong candidate to fill a vacancy, they will happily take a senior teacher. For the ATR pool, where you have thousands of vacancies in every conceivable license area, if you’re not getting hired year after year, chances are you’re not applying to vacancies, or you’re not demonstrating you’re a good match,” he says. “Just because you’re experienced doesn’t mean you’re very good at what you do.”

Funding: fair or flawed?

The Fair Student Funding (FSF) formula of 2007 does mean that principals are weighing the value of an educator against the cost that hire entails, rather than making hires on their own with the DOE footing whatever the teacher’s price tag may be.

Prior to the FSF, a given school’s funding largely correlated with teachers’ salaries; this meant there was often disparate per-student funding from school to school. When teachers had more power over where they were placed (prior to the 2005 agreement), educators with seniority often gravitated towards certain schools, and those schools would subsequently get larger budgets to cover their costs.

This shifted with the FSF, which became by a significant margin the largest financial allocation for schools each year. According to an 2013 IBO report, funding from the FSF allocation can comprise as much as 70 percent of a school’s budget and is tabulated based on the characteristics of a school’s student body. For each school, the needs of the students and schools are weighted, including how many students are in each grade and whether some students are English Language Learners or require special-education services. Supporters say the formula aims to instill more equity among schools, cease the funneling of funding towards schools with the greatest number of high-salaried teachers, and direct more towards schools facing the greatest need.

However, only 23 percent of schools received the full amount of funding they were allocated under the FSF in 2017, according to Chalkbeat. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, many FSF funding increases were delayed or cancelled, meaning many of those schools that were inadequately funded prior to the FSF are constantly behind the more affluent schools (additionally, the more affluent schools never had their allocations reduced when the formula was put into place).

This confluence of policies leads principals, particularly in schools receiving lower funding, to have a far greater incentive to hire younger teachers as opposed to taking on the expense of an experienced educator, according to many ATR teachers, because now the expense is being drained from the principal’s FSF allocation (which may be lower than the formula deems it should be). A starting teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree and no prior teaching experience can expect to make, on average, $56,711, an amount more than $40,000 lower than the average salary of teachers in the ATR pool.

“The natural progression of experience is being totally thrown out,” Rodriguez says. “When you have a small salary you’re aiming for, you’re not going to have a diversity of experience.”

New York City has a young teacher workforce compared to the rest of the state; a 2018 Rockefeller Institute report found that 52 percent of city teachers were younger than 40 years old in 2015-2016, and only 27 percent were 49 or older. While this might mean teacher retirementswill pose less danger of school or subject shortages in the city than elsewhere, it leaves NYC’s teacher workforce more susceptible to higher rates of turnover and attrition among younger educators; nationally, less than a third of teachers who leave the profession annually do so because of retirement, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Teachers hired directly out of school are more likely to leave the profession or transfer to a different school, and cash-strapped schools could be placed in a difficult position if principals feel they are only able to afford the expense of inexperienced, younger teachers.

“It’s created a pool with a large number of older teachers,” Kaufman says. “It made principals responsible for the cost of teachers, so there was a stronger incentive to discriminate against teachers.”

De Blasio responds

While it’s likely that the ATR pool continues to grow more senior because of its rising costs (even as the number of teachers in the pool drops), the DOE does not release regular detailed updates on the state of the pool, or on the age and experience level of the educators remaining on it. Champeny lamented the lack of data, saying it was more difficult to propose substantive solutions to the quandaries created by the pool’s existence.

“Is there some group of ‘X’ teachers that have been in the pool since they’ve been created?” she asks. “We just don’t know. That kind of information is really missing. The nuance is really missed.”

The de Blasio administration says it is taking steps to reduce the pool’s size; last year, former Brooklyn Technical High School Principal Randy Asher was tasked with shrinking the ATR. Since 2014, the city has offered separation incentives to encourage ATR teachers to take a lump sum in lieu of staying on the DOE payroll. In 2014, 115 teachers left, and in 2018, the city offered ATR teachers $50,000 to leave the profession; 170 educators took the deal. The CBC report indicated the move cost the city about $8.5 million, but would save the city about $23 million per year in salary expenses.

The DOE also promises to subsidize salaries of ATR teachers for schools who provisionally hire them by 50 percent in the first year and 25 percent in the second year; ATR educators who receive ratings of “highly effective” or “effective” at the end of the first year in the new school will then become permanent hires (though some teachers in the ATR pool say the plan leads some principals to provisionally hire ATR teachers, and then push for a low rating at the end of the first year to get the 50 percent subsidy without having to take on the cost in the following years). The CBC found the subsidy offer led to 372 ATR hires during the 2017 school year.

Last autumn, the city also began to place ATR educators in schools without the approval of those school’s principals. Many principals vociferously opposed the practice, calling it “forced placement” and decrying the loss of control in hiring decisions. The city originally wanted to place 400 ATR teachers in school though this approach, though only 72 were eventually placed.

Earlier this year, The Education Trust uncovered information on those teachers who were placed in schools through this practice; none of the 41 teachers placed in schools without the approval of principals through Oct. 15, 2017 had an “Unsatisfactory” or “Ineffective” rating, according to the Education Trust. Of the 205 provisional hires in the past year, only five had an “Unsatisfactory” rating. This indicated the city placed high-quality teachers in schools, but the Trust’s report expressed worry that the remaining pool of ATR educators could be disproportionately packed with teachers with “Unsatisfactory” ratings (though The Trust acknowledged that the pool was constantly in flux).

In last week’s announcement of a new contract between the city and the UFT, de Blasio acknowledged the new agreement did not do anything in particular for teachers in the pool, but stressed that the administration was tackling the problem through other means.

“The pool’s been shrinking consistently, it will be shrinking more in the coming year. A lot of things that could have been done a long time ago weren’t being done, like ensuring that a capable teacher whose school changed was not left out in the cold but was helped immediately to find a new assignment between June and September of the same year,” de Blasio said during a Thursday press conference announcing the new contract. “There’s a host of other initiatives, but it’s absolutely shrinking and it will keep shrinking.”

The DOE contends its policy reforms are starting to have an impact, noting that there were 765 teachers in the ATR at the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year, compared to 1,131 at the end of the last school year, along with efforts to emphasize longer-term placements to offer schools and educators more stability.

For Rodriguez, an uncertain summer was punctuated with the call she was hoping for; she was off the ATR pool, working as an ESL teacher as a provisional hire at a school in Manhattan. The position has the potential to extend beyond the year. But her thoughts remained with other teachers still in the ATR pool, lacking a permanent placement. Some may enjoy the substitute work, but Rodriguez was adamant that the current design of the system was wasting the talent and experience of teachers already on the payroll.

“Wherever I go, I need to stay. I need to put roots down, and the problem is the constant closures are having people run around. You don’t form relationships, you don’t develop curriculum over time,” she says. “I’m just going to try to enjoy the year, do my best teaching and we’ll see what comes next.”

Assessing the ATR’s progress over the past decade, Eterno contended that the pool’s existence amounted to an towering array of missed opportunities.

“The vast majority of teachers, if given the opportunity, could have helped out,” he says. “We could have been assets, for sure.”

This series was made possible through a grant by Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION).