Turnaround Purgatory: Absent Teacher Reserve

The Grim Fate of Teachers at Closing Schools

Everyone remembers looking forward to having a substitute teacher back in grade school: someone who would come in for a few days, someone easy to not take seriously, and someone easy to forget. For part-timers, or for teachers just starting out, being a substitute is the norm.

But imagine being a licensed teacher, working in the system for a number of years, and then being restored to that very position. A new school every week, new faces – students and fellow teachers alike – essentially receiving a demotion. This has become a reality for some teachers and a possibility for others working in public schools slated to close down.

Since 2009, the United Federation of Teachers has filed three lawsuits against the Department of Education, the most recent regarding the proposal to restaff up to half of the teachers in failing schools in order to receive more federal funding. However, the more common approach is the closure of schools rather than restaffing, leaving some teachers in a limbo, or rather, becoming part of the Absent Teacher Reserve.

As a result of this attempt to run schools like a business, teachers have become an afterthought in the Department of Education’s recent closure of failing public schools.

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Years ago, when a public school was designated to close, teachers who had been working for a few years had something known as “seniority transfer.” When a job opened up in a school, the position was given to the teacher licensed in that area with the most experience. In the most recent United Federation of Teachers contract, seniority transfer was done away with and absent teacher reserve came about.

The absent teacher reserve pool, last reportedly comprised of around 830 teachers in New York City, is a group of teachers who lost their permanent teaching assignments because of budget cuts or school closure. Rather than remaining on the school’s payroll or instead of being let go entirely after a school closure, the salary of an ATR is paid directly by the Department of Education.  They work as long-term substitute teachers, or more typically transfer from school to school on a weekly basis.

John Gawon, who has worked as a teacher in New York City for 21 years, explained that the change in contract came about when the Board of Education and Mayor Bloomberg decided to break down larger, failing public schools, and open smaller schools in their place.

“The union – stupidly in my opinion – agreed to [replace seniority transfer with ATR],” said Gawon. “In the old days, people like myself would have been assigned to a new school. Now, the budget is cut differently so it actually makes a difference whether you have three years of experience or twenty years of experience.”

With the city’s most recent list taken into consideration, the Bloomberg administration has placed 166 schools on the chopping block in total, and opened 656 new public schools since 2002. With all of these school closures, many teachers are left in the ATR limbo, or at the very least, fear the threat of it. By contract however, ATRs cannot be fired, and are paid indefinitely until they find a permanent assignment.

Since the budget has been reallocated, it is more difficult for teachers with more experience to find permanent jobs on the dime of a school because they are paid more. Of the one thousand ATRs who lost their jobs in 2006, twenty-six earn more than $100,000 a year, not even accounting for about $30,000 in benefits. Seventy have been working in the school system for over twenty years or more.

Gawon currently teaches at Morris Academy a subset of Morris Academy of Collaborative Studies in the Bronx. His school is an example of a smaller school that opened up in the place of a larger, failing school.

“Let’s say in a couple of years, my school gets ready to shut down – I would then become an ATR, and it would be very unlikely that anyone would hire me,” said Gawon. “Why would you want [me] when you could pay two teachers at a lower salary?”

Pablo Ramirez, a coworker of Gawon at Morris Academy, pointed out that even in the city’s efforts to save money, the smaller school model is not sustainable. Ramirez used to work at George Washington High School in Manhattan, which was reopened as four smaller schools in 1999.

“Principal salary is 150,000 dollars, and now there’s four instead of one,” said Ramirez. “Going from the large schools to the new [small] schools makes no sense at all, not even from the business point of view of Bloomberg.”

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Just as alarming as the number of ATRs is their daily experience. “It’s not a good situation – they come in but you don’t get to know them because they’re going to be gone in a couple of days,” said Gawon. “The city is right to say they’re very expensive substitute teachers, but I have no sympathy for the city because they created that situation.”

And with more and more public schools slated to close each year, the prospect of being an ATR becomes a reality for more teachers – and those with more experience face more difficulties finding a permanent position.

The Teacher’s Union has been making noise in regards to the fate of the ATRs, since the DOE hopes to place a time limit on their employment. Ideally, when new positions open up, ATRs will be hired first, and then new teachers can be considered for positions. Gawon does not think the board will agree to that, but hopes the union will hold tight to that position.

“The union was pretty strong and [the board] basically wants to break the union, and they’re breaking it pretty fast,” said Ramirez. “With some kind of business going on with the government, schools will become a very difficult place to work.”

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