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Lost in the school closing debate: what happens to the teachers

In the debate over whether to close 19 schools this year, the city and its opponents have mulled possible effects on student achievement, attendance, and the drop-out rate. But one thing that remains unclear is what will happen to the approximately 1,000 teachers working in these schools.

Teachers who work at shuttered schools lose their positions, but — because of a deliberate line in the labor contract — they do not fall off the city payroll, even if they don’t find a new position at another city school. In the past few years, the contract line has meant a ballooning set of teachers receiving regular paychecks even though they don’t hold regular jobs. Between 2006 and April 2009, these members of the Absent Teacher Reserve cost the DOE approximately $193 million. This year, conservative estimates put the cost at $90 million.

In 2008, a report by The New Teacher Project, a New York-based research group, said the hiring process was “hard-wired for failure.” The report also found that 70 percent of excessed teachers from closing schools in 2007 were immediately hired at other schools.

But the situation next year could look worse.

The 1,000 teachers who leave those schools over the next four years will join 1,200 reserve pool members who are already looking for work. In September of 2008, there were 637 in the pool. The competition will be fiercer while the number of job openings could shrink as a result of education aid cuts from the state.

Neither the teachers union nor the Department of Education has, or would provide, projected numbers on how many teachers are expected to wind up in the reserve pool next year. Releasing how many teachers are likely to remain on the city’s payroll without permanent jobs could make both organizations uncomfortable. For the city, the information could strengthen the financial arguments against closing the schools. For the union, it could increase the pressure to stop paying teachers who have gone years without being able to find new jobs.

After a meeting last month during which the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close 19 schools, Chancellor Joel Klein said he didn’t think the closures would significantly inflate the reserve pool. “I don’t think it’ll climb radically,” he said.

The addition of teachers from closing schools to the reserve pool may not be radical, but it’s likely to have a greater impact this year than in years past.

The majority of teachers in the 19 schools slated for closure next year are working in high schools, which will phase out over four years, meaning that about a quarter of them will lose their jobs each year.

If the current climate resembled that of June 2007, most of these teachers would likely find new jobs by September of the following school year and fewer than 100 would be in the reserve pool. But in 2010, the story is likely to be different.

Teachers excessed from closing schools could benefit from a hiring freeze that forces principals to hire from within the system, rather than from the graduate classes of teaching colleges. But what little help this might offer could be counteracted by a contraction in the number of available jobs. Bloomberg is threatening to cut 2,500 teaching positions if the union doesn’t agree to lower pay raises and Governor Paterson is pushing about $600 million in cuts that the city said could reduce the teaching force by 8,500.

A diagram from the New Teacher Project report shows three differently sized closing schools and what happened to the teachers who left them in the summer of 2007.

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first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”