The Newark school system spends millions of dollars annually on teachers who lack permanent placements because their positions were cut or due to performance or disciplinary issues.
For years, the district paid those teachers to help out in classrooms until they were hired by schools or left the system. Recently, officials began to shrink that costly pool of displaced teachers by assigning them to fill openings at schools regardless of whether principals wanted them — a process critics call “forced placement.”
Last year, Superintendent Roger León said all of the unhired teachers, known as “employees without placement sites,” had been assigned to schools, saving the district $6 million by shifting the teachers from the central-office budget to school budgets.
Despite those efforts, the pool of displaced employees has not yet been eliminated, according to a district memo sent to principals this week.
Principals were given two days to decide whether to accept any staffers from that pool to work at their schools next year. Those who are not chosen will have until May 3 to look for positions. After that, the district will place them in schools that still have openings, according to the memo.
It’s unclear how many employees still lack placements, whether they include teachers or other school workers, and how much they are costing the district. A district spokeswoman did not respond to calls or emails.
The pool was established to spare principals from hiring displaced teachers they didn’t want. But critics, including the Newark Teachers Union, say it morphed into an expensive tool for principals to remove tenured teachers without bringing charges against them. While this week’s memo suggests the pool has not been fully dismantled, union president John Abeigon applauded León for taking steps to end it.
“Roger’s actually an educator — you don’t need to explain to him that you’re wasting money and precious resources” by keeping teachers in the pool, Abeigon said. “He began eliminating it, pushing them back into classrooms, day one.”
The pool originated around 2013 former Superintendent Cami Anderson began closing and consolidating under-enrolled schools, which resulted in scores of displaced educators. Rather than allow veteran teachers to find new positions by using seniority rules to take the spots of more junior educators, the district paid them to work as classroom aides and substitutes.
By 2014, the pool had ballooned to nearly 250 unassigned teachers at an estimated cost of $25 million to the district. Anderson asked the state education commissioner for a waiver from the state’s seniority rules that would allow layoffs based on teachers’ performance, not just their years of service. Otherwise, Anderson argued, the district would be forced to remove high-performing junior teachers while retaining seasoned teachers in the pool, who she said tended to be less effective than teachers with permanent placements.
Anderson did not receive the waiver, and the pool continued to swell to over 450 teachers in 2015. Her successor, Christopher Cerf, said he had no choice but to assign those teachers to open positions.
“It was borderline unconscionable and I was forced to do that to protect us from going off the fiscal cliff,” he told NJ.com. “It has the effect of literally force-placing teachers in schools.”
By 2017, the number of unassigned teachers was down to about 100, officials said at the time. Some teachers in the pool faced investigations into their conduct or efforts by principals to remove their tenure, officials have said, and were not placed in schools.
Last year, León suggested that any remaining teachers in the unassigned pool had been cleared out.
In a district-wide email to staffers in September, he said the title of “employee without placement site” had been “removed.” He attributed that to “the success of our teacher evaluation efforts under TEACHNJ in the past few years,” a reference to the state’s revamped teacher-tenure law implying that some ineffective teachers had been forced out of the district. In December, he told TAPinto Newark that any remaining teachers without permanent placements had been assigned to schools.
León also said in September that he got rid of training workshops at the central office for teachers who were removed from classrooms due to investigations or challenges to their tenure, saving the district about $1 million. It is unclear where those employees go now.
But this week’s notice to principals made clear that some employees still are in the unassigned pool.
A principal said Thursday that he had not yet had time to go through the list of employees and that the quick turnaround meant he was unlikely to request any before the Friday deadline. He guessed that the memo may have been intended primarily for principals who were assigned teachers this year and wanted to keep them next year.
Teachers in the pool sometimes face a stigma based on the assumption that they have struggled to find a permanent placement because of poor performance or clashes with supervisors. But that bad rap is not always deserved, said a different school administrator.
“I’ve had some great teachers come from the list,” he said. “And I’ve had some not-great teachers come from the list.”