Bloomberg, Cuomo Mull 'Short-Term' Strategy for Teachers

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he and Governor Andrew Cuomo should be able to "work something out" to change the state's law regarding teacher layoffs, but what would that solution look like?

Bloomberg criticized the governor earlier this week for favoring a teacher evaluation system that would weaken but not eliminate the role of seniority in layoffs because it wouldn't take effect until the fall.

But the mayor softened his language on his weekly WOR radio interview Friday morning: "There are ways to do short-term and long-term, and I'm optimistic that we'll find a ways to do it," Bloomberg said.

The mayor plans to lay off 4,600 teachers this spring because of budget cuts. He's been vehemently lobbying to scrap the current last in, first out law (known as LIFO) because it would require him to get rid of inexperienced teachers regardless of their effectiveness.

The Republican-led state Senate passed a Bloomberg-backed bill on Tuesday that would prevent an employee's length of service from being the sole factor in lay offs. But it's considered dead on arrival in the Democrat-led Assembly.

Cuomo acknowledged that Thursday when he said "this is not an easy matter." He noted it's "the understatement of the decade" to call Albany a place where things don't happen quickly.

That's why Cuomo wants to expedite a new teacher evaluation system the state is already planning to implement. The state agreed to create this system in exchange for federal Race to the Top funds last year.

Teachers would be evaluated based partly on how their students perform on standardized tests and on other factors such as classroom observations. There would be four ratings ranging from "ineffective" to "highly effective," instead of the current "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" ratings prinicpals find too limiting. And these annual evaluations would be used for determining promotions and terminations.

But it's unclear what role seniority would play, especially in the event of layoffs.  And each local school district has to negotiate its own evaluation system with its unions. An advisory committee composed of representatives of teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards and other parties is working on statewide recommendations that are due in April. But the system wouldn't start until the fall - which Bloomberg says is way too late for him if he's going to give teachers notice this spring. 

So what's the "short term" solution he and Cuomo have been hinting at?

There is speculation among knowledgeable observers that the governor will try to mediate between Bloomberg and the teachers union because it's impossible to get new legislation. Cuomo has said he he wants "objective criteria" for measuring teachers and that there's "a basic agreement" that LIFO isn't the best way to do layoffs.

But neither Cuomo's camp, the teachers union nor other parties seem to believe the mayor is serious about laying off the teachers because he's made numerous threats in the past.

"The mayor is hoping for the best public relations bounce," said David Gregory, executive director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at St John's University. Gregory suggested the mayor will back off the threats and "try to maintain status quo until the fall" when the governor could lead a multi-party discussion about the role of seniority.

Bloomberg has said that if LIFO is abolished, he'd eliminate the least effective teachers instead of the newest. The bill the Senate approved lays out several categories of teachers who would be the first to go during layoffs. They include those with multiple unsatisfactory ratings, those who were fined or suspended without pay to settle charges and those who are chronically absent, among other factors.

Teachers fear ending LIFO would create an incentive for principals to give low marks to more experienced and expensive staffers. Under current funding formulas, schools are given enough money to fund their average teacher salaries. That's supposed to prevent principals from worrying that a few expensive teachers will drain their budgets.

But Philip Weinberg, principal of the High School for Telecommunications Arts and Technology, said it's still a concern. By replacing a $100,000-a-year teacher with one making $50,000, for example, he said a school with 50 teachers will reduce the average teacher salary by $1000 a teacher in the following year.

"That means you can hire another $50,000 teacher the next year," he said. "I don't know if that's an incentive but it sure sounds like that to me."

But Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan noted the Senate bill specifically says the city "shall not permit an employee's salary" to be considered in layoffs. And the department is considering freezing average salaries at each school as one other solution.

Another Bloomberg goal is to get rid of teachers who have been without permanent positions for more than a year. There are currently more than 1,000 teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, and they receive their full pay while working as subs. The ATR pool costs the city $100 million annually. But the union has resisted any efforts to limit how long teachers can stay in the pool.

Whatever happens in New York will be closely watched now that Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio are trying to curtail collective bargaining rights and unions are trying to assert their power.

Other than Hawaii, "New York is the most union-intense state in the country" said Gregory.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg said he'll send out a letter to city agencies next week asking them to find another $600 million worth of savings in case he doesn't get all the aid he's counting on from Albany. He has said he'll have to eliminate a total of more than 6,100 teachers through layoffs and attrition even with this money, but that maybe he could afford to keep the teachers if he got a $1 billion from the state.