The New York Times Publishes Fake News About Employees in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) Pool

I keep hoping that some major media will report on the ATR situation correctly. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened.

The title of the article in the New York Times on Friday October 13, 2017, “Caught Sleeping or Worse, Troubled Teachers Will Return to New York Classrooms” has, imbedded in it, the bias of the Times and the reporter in the words “Troubled Teachers”.

You know the article is about how ALL teachers in the ATR pool are tarnished in some way. ALL teachers in the ATR pool are damaged goods.

Randy Asher, new Department of Education ATR Administrator

The truth of the matter is, in my opinion, that New York City is dealing with a “troubled” system that labels ALL teachers who are misplaced from their classrooms for any number of reasons, as “bad”, “ineffective”, “mentally deranged”, “criminals”, etc. in order to remove ALL of these newly minted alleged “misfits” from the payroll of a school where the administration doesn’t like, or cannot afford, the teacher/Guidance Counselor/secretary or staff member.

Reporters for most newspapers like catchy headlines and stories that anger, frustrate, or get under the skin of the reader. We get that. But fake news brings alarm on the part of readers, and that’s where the NY Times has gone wrong in the article posted below.

We, the readers, are supposed to believe that ALL ATRs are “bad” teachers in some way. There is no truth to this. I personally know excellent educators and DOE employees who have become ATRs for no reason relating to their pedagogical skills or to any misconduct. Jealousy, exposure of wrong-doing and abuse of students by administrators, high salaries, all play into the formula for preferring charges pursuant to Education Law 3020-a. The process is seriously out of whack and should – no must – be changed so that the excellent, senior, expensive but effective teacher/employee can  continue to give their expertise to students, and not fear sudden re-assignment, 3020-a charges, as well as ridicule by parents, students and administrators who read a newspaper or watch the evening news.

Betsy Combier

Editor, Advocatz

Editor, NYC Rubber Room Reporter
Editor, New York Court Corruption
Editor, National Public Voice
Editor, NYC Public Voice
Editor, Inside 3020-a Teacher Trials

Caught Sleeping or Worse, Troubled Teachers Will Return to New York Classrooms

One of the teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve held his last permanent job at P.S. 157 in the Bronx. Among
other things, he was caught sleeping when he was supposed to be helping with dismissal.
Francis Blake has not held a permanent position in a New York City public school in at least five years. At his last job, in a Bronx elementary school, records show he was disciplined for incompetence, insubordination and neglect of duties — he had been caught sleeping in a classroom when he was supposed to be helping with dismissal.

Felicia Alterescu, a special-education teacher, has been without a permanent post since 2010, despite high demand for special education teachers. According to records, in addition to getting a string of unsatisfactory ratings, she was disciplined for calling in sick when she actually went to a family reunion. She also did not tell the Education Department that she had been arrested on harassment charges.

This month, Mr. Blake, Ms. Alterescu and hundreds of other teachers who are part of a pool known as the Absent Teacher Reserve could be permanently back in classrooms, as the city’s Education Department places them in jobs at city schools.

The reserve is essentially a parking lot for staff members who have lost their positions, some because of school closings and budget cuts, others because of disciplinary problems, but cannot be fired. It grew significantly as a result of a 2005 deal between the Bloomberg administration, which wanted to give principals control over hiring, and the teachers’ union. Since then, the union has fiercely protected the jobs of teachers in the reserve, resisting attempts to put a time limit on how long a teacher can remain there.

Until now, the teachers in the reserve have rotated through schools for a month at a time, serving as substitutes or, in some cases, sitting in the teachers’ lounge.

The salaries for those in the reserve cost the Education Department more than $150 million this past school year — enough to put an extra social worker or guidance counselor in nearly every school. The city says it cannot keep spending that much for teachers without permanent jobs. As of Oct. 15, if a school has an opening, a reserve teacher may be placed in it. Up to 400 teachers, roughly half the number in the pool at the end of the last school year, are expected to be put into vacancies. They will have a year to prove their abilities, after which the city will consider taking measures to dismiss them if they don’t measure up.

“The A.T.R. has been wasteful for 12 years,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “For the first time, there’s a common-sense strategy to get A.T.R. teachers who make the grade into permanent positions, and to hold them accountable if they don’t.” She added that the de Blasio administration had cut the size of the reserve by 27 percent through buyouts and other measures.

‘A Vicious Cycle’Critics of the plan say that it is likely to put incompetent teachers in struggling, high-poverty schools, which have the most difficulty filling jobs.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Dr. Bernard Gassaway, a former New York City principal and superintendent. “If you have students who are challenged, and you have teachers who are challenged, you can’t have positive results come out of that.” He said the department would send the worst teachers to schools that would offer “the least amount of resistance,” because they had inexperienced principals and little parental involvement.

The Education Department originally said that teachers from the reserve might be placed in schools that are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, in which the city is spending more than $500 million to turn around failing schools, but this week said that would not happen.

As of Oct. 4, schools listed approximately 800 teacher vacancies, according to an Education Department spokesman, though that might not reflect the exact number of jobs available; he said he could not give a breakdown of where the vacancies were.

In a system in which only 1 percent of teachers earn the lowest possible ratings, of ineffective or unsatisfactory, 12 percent of the teachers who were in the Absent Teacher Reserve at the end of the last school year had received one of those ratings in 2015-16.

Nearly 40 percent worked in schools that were closed for poor performance. Another 30 percent were “excessed” from their positions because of budget cuts or because the number of students enrolled at their schools fell. Principals are sometimes forced to let go of teachers they would like to keep for those reasons, but they can also use them as a way to get rid of low performers. The rest landed in the pool because of legal or disciplinary charges.

Randy Asher

Troubling HistoriesAs of last spring, roughly a quarter of the teachers in the reserve were in it five years earlier. These teachers are the most likely to be problematic, since their history suggests that no principal has been willing to hire them, or that they have actively avoided getting a permanent assignment. Among this group, principals say, are teachers who are incompetent or mentally unstable.

“So many of them, in my opinion, weren’t capable of leading a classroom again, or ever were,” said Matt Williams, the founding principal of a small high school, Bronx Design and Construction Academy, who left the department in 2014.

To identify teachers from the reserve with troubling histories, The New York Times cross-referenced two sets of records: the Education Department’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists available staff and openings in the system, and arbitrators’ decisions in disciplinary cases, which are available from the New York State Education Department.

Among the teachers available is a science teacher who, in her last permanent job, did not bother to regularly enter students’ grades, according to the arbitrator’s decision. She gave one student in her earth science class a grade of 83 percent, despite the fact that the girl had never come to school. Administrators who observed her classes often found students talking, listening to music on their headphones, or even asleep.

Also in the pool: a special-education teacher said to have disciplined autistic students by making them stand for 45 minutes to an hour; leaning on them to prevent them from getting out of their seats, and making them hold their breakfast trays for 10 minutes before allowing them to eat. An arbitrator wrote that she was “unquestionably guilty of corporal punishment,” yet let her go with a fine and training.

Randy Asher, who is heading the effort for the Education Department, declined to discuss specific cases. He said that all teachers in the reserve would be considered in filling vacancies, though he said it was “less likely” that those with multiple poor ratings or histories of corporal punishment would be placed.

“We’ll look at it case-by-case,” he said. He added that, in any event, the teachers were already in schools, just for shorter, temporary assignments. (A handful of teachers charged with inappropriate relationships with students or actions of a sexual nature, whom arbitrators declined to terminate, remain assigned away from classrooms and are not in the reserve.)

Some observers say that, while the cost of the reserve is untenable, the city should find a better solution.

“As far as what would have been the best thing for the kids in New York City schools, it would have been to find a way to end the A.T.R. without placing those teachers in schools,” said Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Chicago and Washington, for instance, have put limits of roughly a year on how long a teacher without a permanent assignment can collect a paycheck.

“It’s one of those things that you would hope that even the union would understand — that if you’ve been in the A.T.R. for five years or so, it’s probably time to move on,” Mr. Winters said. As for the de Blasio administration, which is generally seen as close to the teachers’ union, he said, “I don’t know if they were aggressive enough to do it or not.”

Adam Ross, the general counsel for the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, said, “If an arbitrator finds, upon examining all the facts, that termination is not warranted, it is management’s responsibility to use the employee in question.”

A Question of EnergySara Dingledy, the former principal of Westchester Square Academy, a small high school in the Bronx, said that while about half of the reserve teachers who rotated through her school were capable and eager to be hired, “I had a whole bunch of people in who obviously had no interest in getting a job, who wanted to know where the staff room was so they could sit down, who just wanted to surf the computer all day.”

Mr. Blake said that he had applied for a number of jobs, and blamed his trouble in finding a permanent position on his salary. Both he and Ms. Alterescu were at the top teacher pay scale of $113,762 last year.

“It’s a matter of economics,” he said.

Mr. Blake said that he went on roughly two interviews a year, mostly for positions as a cluster teacher — an elementary-level teacher who teaches a subject like science or art to groups of students throughout the day. He said that at his age — about 60 — he didn’t think he would succeed as a regular classroom teacher, who is with the same group of students all day long and is responsible for keeping records on their academic progress and other matters.

“You basically have to be like Bartleby the Scrivener there to keep up with all the logs you have to do for 30 students,” he said of the paperwork.

The department moved to fire Mr. Blake in 2009. His supervisors at Public School 157, the Grove Hill School, in the Bronx, described his lessons as ineffective and his classroom management as poor.

The case was heard before an arbitrator, a process dictated by state law and the teachers’ union contract. The arbitrator, Alan Berg, wrote in his decision that Mr. Blake “appears to lack the energy and enthusiasm necessary to be a truly good teacher,” but imposed a fine rather than firing him. “Being boring alone does not warrant termination,” Mr. Berg said.

Ms. Alterescu worked at Junior High School 189, the Daniel Carter Beard School, in Queens, until 2010. She was twice disciplined for excessive absenteeism or lateness. While she was assigned to a reassignment center, or “rubber room,” in June 2010, she sought and received a doctor’s note saying that she was unable to work, then flew to Chicago for a family reunion, claiming sick time for the two days of work she missed.

The next year, after she had been assigned to the reserve, she was arrested and received desk appearance tickets on two occasions, for altercations with her mother and sister. She did not immediately report the arrests to the department. The department sought to remove her, but an arbitrator, citing her long tenure, imposed a fine instead. Ms. Alterescu said in an interview that she believed the principal of J.H.S. 189 disliked her and that she did not immediately report the desk appearance tickets because she did not think they were arrests. She said the charges in both cases were ultimately dismissed.

Mr. Williams, the former Bronx principal, who is now the vice president of education at Goodwill Central Texas, said that, while principals would no doubt be frustrated to have ineffective teachers forced on them, they weren’t the only ones who would be unhappy.

“No one dislikes a lazy or not-good teacher more than a good teacher,” he said.

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