NEW YORK—It was a slow death for Jamaica High School in Queens. After it was set for closure four years ago for poor performance, the school phased out one grade a year. It shut the doors for the last time in June of this year.
The students moved to other schools, but dozens of their teachers were left in limbo. They are protected from being fired by their union contract, but largely unable to find new jobs. They now rotate from school to school as substitutes, part of the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR).
James Eterno started his career as a substitute teacher in Jamaica High School.
Now, after teaching social studies for 28 years at the same school, he’s a substitute again.
There are about 1,100 ATR teachers, about half from the almost 200 schools closed during the Bloomberg administration. The other half are teachers charged with misdemeanors who are waiting for the results of their “due process,” as well as teachers rated ineffective by their principals.
ATR teachers still collect full pay and go to work every day, but their assignments aren’t very fulfilling, Eterno said. They hardly get to know the students they teach and spend only a couple of weeks in each school they’re assigned to.
Also, schools don’t need a substitute all the time, so ATR teachers end up helping with other tasks, not necessarily related to teaching. Some reported on social media doing office work or doing nothing at all.
But that’s not something Eterno would be happy about. He’d much rather have a proper job. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my career as a substitute,” he said.
ATR teachers are free to look for jobs in the city’s 1,800 public schools, and by contract they have to be excused from their temporary assignments for job interviews. The Education Department now even arranges job interviews for them.
Eterno has been to about seven interviews since September, but to no avail. Three of the positions were already filled when he arrived, and the rest fell through.
He doesn’t believe there’s a problem with his professional skills.
His first temporary assignment was in Aviation High School. He did his work as a substitute and also helped students with college admissions in his free time. “They liked the work I was doing,” Eterno said.
And the school principal, Deno Charalambous, agrees. “He was a very nice gentleman,” he said in a phone interview. “Terrific teacher.”
The same scenario repeated at his second assignment at Middle College High School. But neither principal was ready to hire him–and Eterno said the reason was the same–cost.
With decades of experience and an advanced education, the union contract dictates a salary of about $100,000 for Eterno. Principals can hire two teachers straight out of college for the same price.
Put simply, if schools hire veteran teachers with higher salaries instead of cheaper-to-hire rookies, they won’t get enough money from the central office to cover the difference. It is thus savvy of a principal to hire less experienced teachers, as there will be more money left for other services, such as afterschool programs.
A new union contract, settled by Mayor Bill de Blasio in May, lets the central office cover the additional financial burden of hiring an experienced teacher from the ATR.
But that solved nothing for Eterno, since it only applies to the school year when the teacher is hired. Next year he would be just as expensive for the school as any other experienced teacher.
Of dozens of his colleagues from Jamaica High School, Eterno knows of only one who got hired.
Charalambous said not every ATR teacher coming through his door is as good as Eterno. Some are outright bad. “Some ATRs come in and say ‘I’m not at my school, I’m going to sit on my butt and do nothing,'” he said. “You get those too.”
But many are good, or at least good enough. The problem is, “once they go to ATR pool, it’s a stigma,” Charalambous said. “Some principals, they figure if you are in ATR pool, you must be no good, that’s why nobody’s hiring you. But a lot of them are not being given a fair chance.”
A month ago Eterno and some others from the ATR decided to fight for a fair chance. They started to connect through Facebook and formed an ATR Alliance. Having over 100 members and growing, the alliance seeks a change to the rules for ATRs.
One possibility could be changing the schools budgeting rules so principals wouldn’t have to cut into their budgets to hire more experienced teachers.
There are no available statistics on the ATR, but it seems most of the teachers are veterans. The city pays about $144 million a year in salaries and benefits for the 1131 teachers, according to data provided by the city in June. That works out to an average of $127,000 per teacher.
A survey on the ATR Alliance’s website found that among 60 ATR teachers who responded, on average teachers have 18 years of experience. Some respondents stated they applied to over 50 job positions with no success.
The alliance has reached out to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city’s teachers union, but so far there’s been no substantial response, says Eterno, now president of the ATR Alliance.
Part of the reason may be that ATR teachers lack representation in the UFT. Since the teachers don’t belong to a specific school, there is no union chapter leader representing them in the Delegate Assembly, UFT’S highest policy-making body.
The alliance is now trying to reach out to the UFT about forming its own chapter.
DOE, UFT, and the principal of Middle College High School did not respond to requests for comment.