Teachers, Principals and Money Unresolved for 24 Turnaround Schools

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UPDATED | The Panel for Educational Policy's vote to close 24 schools so they can reopen in September with new names and many new staff members resolved their status, but left many unanswered questions about the process, staffing and money.

The plan still needs approval from the state Education Department so the schools can qualify for federal School Improvement Grants. But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his administration made it clear that they will forge ahead, regardless of whether they get the additional money or an agreement with the teachers' union.

One of the biggest question marks is what will happen to teachers at the 24 turnaround schools. Federal rules governing the turnaround model require that the schools "screen all existing staff and rehire no more than 50 percent," and select new staff members.

But Deputy Chancellor Mark Sternberg told members of the Panel for Educational Policy late Thursday night that the city will not adhere to any quota.

Speaking of principals, he said, "Our direction to them is to hire the best possible staff that they can. And if that means that they're hiring back more than 50 percent, then that is exactly what they should do."

If that jeopardizes the federal money, then Mr. Sternberg said the city would advocate for the schools.

The state Education Department will decide whether the 24 schools qualify for federal grants, which are worth up to $2 million a school. The state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has said he expects a decision in June, leaving uncertainty for the schools as they reorganize over the summer.

In the back-and-forth between school officials and panel members that preceded the vote -- toward the end of the nearly six-hour meeting -- Mr. Sternberg's guarantee of city assistance was met with incredulity by the Queens representative to the Panel for Educational Policy, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, who noted that the federal grants are no small change.

"No principal's going to give up a million dollars and hire back more than 50 percent if he or she doesn't have to," he said. "I am concerned about money. Because that's what principals are worried about when they worry about their budgets, and if they can go someplace else and let the experienced teacher walk, they will do that."

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott noted that principals will have to rely on hiring committees that are comprised of the members of the teachers' union and the Department of Education.

He also pointed out that the city has used a similar strategy in 10 to 12 schools over the past decade under a provision of the teachers' contract that allows the city to let go of all the teachers at a school and then hire back at least 50 percent.

"I've been consistent in all my public comments as far as not chasing the dollars," Mr. Walcott told the panel members, saying the city's main goal is to improve the schools. "The dollars would be nice but, again, that's not the ultimate goal."

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said on Friday that Mr. Walcott's explanation proves the decision to close the schools was "the mayor's way to continue his attacks on the teachers of New York City" instead of a strategy to retain the federal grants.

The city lost $58 million in school improvement grants for a total of 33 schools (nine were spared from being designated for "turnaround") when it wasn't able to reach a deal with the union by the end of 2011 for a new teacher evaluation system. Having an evaluation system in place is a condition of the grants.

In January, the mayor decided to close and reopen the schools under the turnaround strategy instead of using less dramatic remedies it had originally proposed, so the city could bypass the need to have a teacher evaluation system in place.

"They changed their story in the middle of the school year because it was political, it has nothing to do with education," Mr. Mulgrew said.

But Mr. Walcott has strongly denied the city is engaging in any revenge against the union.

When asked if he would challenge the panel's vote to close the 24 schools, Mr. Mulgrew said the union would "take appropriate actions" once he gets a formal request from the city to begin the new hiring committees.

Ten of the 24 schools will have new principals in the fall, according to the Department of Education. Spokesman Matthew Mittenthal said there are approximately 3,000 teachers working at the 24 schools, but he could not say how many of them are rated unsatisfactory.

Mr. Walcott told the panel members he has no estimate for how much the closings will cost the city, because he doesn't yet know how many teachers will be hired back by the schools. The Department of Education said on Friday that about 2.8 percent of the teachers at the 24 schools have unsatisfactory ratings, compared to 2.7 percent citywide.

Those who aren't re-hired will go into the Absent Teacher Reserve, where they will work as substitutes unless they are hired permanently by other schools.

On his weekly WOR Radio show, Mayor Bloomberg said, "other principals can decide whether those teachers would be more effective in other schools with different leadership, different environments."

But he noted that it is very difficult to fire a teacher. "It is very long, very complicated and it's part of the problem we're trying to address in a statewide evaluation system," he said.

The city and the union have yet to hash out the details of a new evaluation system, which must go into effect by January of next year or the city will risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in state education aid, a threat made by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. But the mayor didn't sound optimistic that the two sides would reach a deal.

"I think that's going to be a very, very hard thing to do," he said. "In the end it's going to be up to the state Legislature to just say 'no, if you guys can't get together we're going to have a real evaluation system with real terms.' "