The perils of the ATR
by Lynne Winderbaum, retired ESL teacher, JFK HS, and former Bronx High School UFT District Rep
For the greater part of the 44 years that I have been a member of the UFT teachers truly believed that an assault against one of us was an assault against all of us. The idea of union was that if we all held together, we could accomplish what we never would be able to as individuals. There was one job title of teacher and we all enjoyed the same rights. I am puzzled now, or maybe just too old and nostalgic to understand, how under our most recent agreement, a certain category of teachers has been singled out for disparate treatment. The teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve have required more protection, not less. Their job security and their outlook have been shaken to the core by the fact that they are no longer appointed to a school.
When the wholesale closing of traditional high schools began under the Bloomberg administration, the borough hardest hit (and most embracing of small school creation to replace them) was the Bronx. Morris, Monroe, Taft, Roosevelt, Walton, New School, Evander Childs, Stevenson, and soon Kennedy and Columbus, shuttered. Veteran teachers were displaced not through any fault of their own, but as collateral damage in the effort to show that a reform was underway that would benefit students. Well, no such benefits have been the result and the loss of the large high schools has been an irreversible destruction. Graduation rates inflated by bogus “credit recovery”schemes (Education critics blast high school credit recovery – NY Daily News) (Students earning credit with dubious make up work – NY Post) , changing of IEPs, waivers on providing special education and English Language Learner services, screening of students, and closing of many of the replacement small schools that were supposed to provide better instruction. (The New Marketplace: Executive Summary – The New School, Milano Institute of International Affairs, Center for New York Affairs)
In the final year of these closing ghost schools, the last students going down with the ship were often underserved as the Department of Education staffed them with a handful of remaining teachers to teach the last seniors. The city abandoned these students. But there was always a cadre of teachers in each school that refused to turn their backs them. These were usually veteran teachers, nearing retirement, who told me they felt an obligation to the students in a dire situation and would not leave for another school and make matters worse for them. When the doors finally closed, these dedicated teachers were in excess.
At a staff meeting of the UFT I rose to point out that this category of excessed teacher created by the massive school closings were unlike any other prior group of excessed teachers. For years “last in, first out” (LIFO) put in excess the most junior teachers in license on a staff that had a contraction of positions. So teachers who had one or two years of service were at risk. But the excessed pool now included hundreds of teachers with 20-30 years of satisfactory classroom service who had dedicated their entire professional lives to the students of New York City. This was new.
Since 2005, when the category of Absent Teacher Reserve was created, teachers in the ATR have always had a sense of uneasiness. I cannot recall a single school visit when an ATR teacher did not approach me and ask if the union would protect them. Will the next contract let us be fired? I always assured them that the UFT would stand by them. And that the ATR category was created to give them job protection. ATR’s could not be fired without the same due process as every other teacher in the system.
At the same time I recall when Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, returned from a trip to Chicago. He learned there that the Chicago school system resolved their teacher displacement problem from school closings by firing excessed teachers who could not find a new teaching position within twelve months. “For years, Chancellor Joel Klein has trumpeted Chicago’s method of laying off teachers, which gives out-of-work teachers a year to remain on salary and find a new job in the schools. Klein’s new list of demands would shrink that window to four months.” (Among City’s Contract Demands: Flexibility to Lay Off Teachers – Chalkbeat)
But in order to make such a move palatable, the teachers in the ATR had to be vilified and portrayed in the media as unemployable losers who could not find jobs and were a drain on the budget of the Department of Education and the taxpayers. And how the city officials threw themselves into that campaign! Joel Klein wrote, “We’d also be forced to keep teachers in what’s called the “Absent Teacher Reserve”pool—a bureaucratic name for those let go from downsizing or closing schools but who remain on payroll. Many of these teachers haven’t applied for new jobs despite losing their positions as long as two years ago. And many who have looked for a job can’t find a school willing to hire them despite many vacancies. Yet none of these teachers can be laid off, even during a budget crisis.” (We’re firing the wrong teachers – Joel Klein)
Steven Brill, wrote in his book “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools”. “These were the teachers who were excessed but had not taken positions elsewhere. Some hadn’t even gone on job interviews…the prospect loomed that they would continue to be paid even if the city had to dismiss thousands of real teachers because of the budget crunch.”p. 129
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. I remember the day that Randi Weingarten, then president of the UFT, put out a call to the district representatives to counter such arguments by bringing a group of ATRs to a press conference. I went to Evander Childs HS and gathered a group of about a dozen from the library and brought them downtown from the Bronx to tell tales of the many online applications sent through the Department of Education website, the many resumes they sent out to principals, and the interviews they went on, all to no avail. None had ever received an unsatisfactory rating. But they were tenured, older, expensive, and they were turned down in favor of fresh new hires, many on probation. They were losing hope and to add insult to injury, they were being painted with the insulting brush of pundits like Brill. Eventually, even Brill saw the superficiality of his opinion in 2011 and reversed course. (Teaching with the enemy – The New York Times)
But the drumbeat did not stop. Even now, the New York Post writes, “Ineffective teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve are headed back into the classroom.”And the New York Daily News warns “The mayor must hold firm [against forcing principals to hire ATRs]. Otherwise, he would dump teachers of poor quality on unlucky students and schools (Expel these teachers – NY Daily News)
So they insist that the 2/3 of the ATR pool who have never been accused of wrongdoing or had unsatisfactory performances be characterized as “poor quality”and “ineffective”and worthy of firing. The truth is that the Department of Education has never made a secret of its desire to fire the ATRs. It’s been raised in every contract negotiation. But the union has up to now provided protection for this group because they are valuable teachers and members whose predicament was created entirely by the Department of Education. As a 31 year veteran teacher from Kennedy High School, a school not slated for closing for many years as other Bronx high schools met their demise, I often thought “There but for the grace of God go I”.
The UFT not only saw that displaced teachers were not fired, we reached agreement with the Department of Education that they could only be moved once a semester. This gave them stability for at least half the school year. It was humane. Many got regular assignments saving the city money on hiring long term substitute teachers for teachers on leaves for child care or health issues. (Although the city and the press still just multiply the number of ATR’s by their salaries and calculate that as a drain on the city’s resources without deducting the savings). ATRs were also serving as per diem substitutes for daily absentee teachers. Another savings. A survey we were asked to do by the union in 2009 showed that hundreds of ATRs were serving in this capacity—not sitting around idly doing nothing and collecting salaries.
Recently, this all changed for the ATR pool. They are now shuffled around week to week, from school to school. They are observed teaching students they do not know while covering classes out of license. It is not only a recipe for wasting talent if there ever was one but a sure path to thinning the ATR pool. “Until recently, the city allowed ATR teachers to remain at a posting for a full school term, during which the school principal could decide whether to hire them. That changed with the weekly reassignments, which went into effect in October as part of a deal with the United Federation of Teachers to avert layoffs.” (City’s Unwanted Teachers Drift Through a Life in Limbo – DNA Info)
This brings us to the new contract and it’s agreement regarding this maligned and vulnerable group of teachers.
The city has been looking for a way to fire this teachers since before Klein’s Chicago jaunt. The Memorandum of Agreement now under consideration makes this much easier. It streamlines the process for ridding the city of the ATRs. It proposes a separate and unequal disciplinary system that will end the career of an ATR in a way that cannot happen to an appointed teacher.
Memorandum of Agreement:
“If a principal removes an ATR from an assignment to a vacancy in his/her license area because of problematic behavior as described below and the ATR is provided with a signed writing by a supervisor describing the problematic behavior, this writing can be introduced at an expedited §3020-a hearing for ATRs who have completed their probationary periods”
The term “problematic behavior”is unacceptably vague. What is it? It can’t rise to the level of a violation of Chancellor’s regulations because that has always allowed for removal. In instances of language belittling or causing emotional distress, corporal punishment, misappropriation of funds, excessive absence and/or lateness or any other clearly defined violations under the Chancellor’s regulations, teachers could be removed and charged. Two years of unsatisfactory ratings could lead to removal and charges.
So “problematic behavior”must fall into a category of actions beneath these violations. Let me give you four examples that I have heard from ATRs: Leaving four minutes early on a staff development day after receiving a phone call about a son’s medical emergency, scolding in front of students for not wearing a tie, dozing off in the teachers’lounge on a day when he was given no assignment or classes to cover, making a statement in the classroom that sounded like religious proselytizing. One might concede that these actions are “problematic”but they never would have led to more than a file letter in the past! Now, they can rise to the level of such severity that the career of the beleaguered ATR can be ended forever. Who will decide what’s “problematic”? The panel of arbitrators whose standard we agree is a mystery at the moment? The two consecutive principals who may have marked certain teachers for discipline possibly because they spoke up when they were given five classes in a row to teach, or reported a special ed violation, or cheating on a Regents? Or maybe they just seemed too confrontational or not compliant enough? Or maybe didn’t wear a tie! Without clearly defining “problematic”behavior, we have provided a roadmap for showing the door to ATR’s.
I have read that the ATR’s cannot “automatically”be fired. They would feel more secure without the modifier. The grounds for their removal and ultimate firing are far different from those required of regular appointed teachers. Do we have the right to create a new and lesser category within our own family?
The speed with which an ATR can be dispatched is breathtaking. No regular appointed teacher could be pushed out the door with such haste. There is due process and then there is what the MOA calls the“exclusive”due process for ATRs. The union should stand behind one 3020a process for all its teachers.
EXCLUSIVE DUE PROCESS FOR ATRS ONLY:
“If, within a school year or consecutively across school years, an ATR has been removed from a temporary provisional assignment to a vacancy in his/her license area by two different principals because of asserted problematic behavior, a neutral arbitrator from a panel of arbitrators jointly selected for this purpose (the panel presently consisting of Martin F. Scheinman, Howard Edelman and Mark Grossman) shall convene a 3020-a hearing as soon as possible Based on the written documentation described above and such other documentary and/or witness evidence as the employer or the respondent may submit, the hearing officer shall determine whether the ATR has demonstrated a pattern of problematic behavior. For purposes of this program, problematic behavior means behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations established for professionals working in schools and a pattern of problematic behavior means two or more instances in a vacancy in the ATR’s license area of problematic behavior within a school year or consecutively across school years. Hearings under this provision shall not exceed one full day absent a showing of good cause and the hearing officer shall convene a §3020-a hearing as soon as possible.
The parties agree that in order to accomplish the purpose of establishing an expedited §3020-a process, the following shall serve as the exclusive process for §3020-a hearings for ATRs that have been charged based on a pattern of problematic behavior in accordance with this agreement.
- The ATR shall have ten (10) school days to request a hearing upon receipt of the §3020-a charges;
- At the same time as the ATR is charged, the Board (DOE) will notify the UFT as to where the ATR is assigned at the time charges are served;
- The employer shall provide the Respondent all evidence to be used in the hearing no more than five (5) school days after the employer receives the Respondent’s request for a hearing;
- Within five (5) school days of receipt of the employer’s evidence, the Respondent shall provide the employer with any evidence the Respondent knows at that time will be used in the hearing;
- The hearing shall be scheduled within five to ten (5-10) school days after the exchange of evidence is complete;
- The hearing time shall be allocated evenly between the parties, with time used for opening statements, closing statements and cross-examination allocated to party doing the opening statement, closing statement or cross-examination and with time for breaks allocated to the party requesting the break;
- The hearing officer shall issue a decision within 15 days of the hearing date.
For the purposes of charges based upon a pattern of problematic behavior under this section only, if the DOE proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the ATR has demonstrated a pattern of problematic behavior the hearing officer shall impose a penalty under the just cause standard up to and including discharge”
I know many ATRs because the displacement of veteran high school teachers has been so great. It is a problem of the Department of Education’s own making. From the dumping of these teachers into a special pool, to the changing of their assignments every semester, to their bouncing from school to school every week, to the special and unique expedited 3020a hearing that adheres to a timetable that no other teacher must be suffer, these life-long teachers have been beaten down.
They have been mandated to apply for jobs online, mandated to attend interviews, and mandated to accept assignments for years. But many are never offered jobs because principals prefer to hire probationary teachers that can be fired at will. I served on many hiring committees for new schools every June. They were looking to staff their entire schools. There was a constant parade of new, uncertified teaching fellows getting hired to the exclusion of the veterans who interviewed.
The unsettling feeling I have now is that the worst fears that the ATRs shared with me all of those years have been realized.