When does 50 percent not equal 50 percent?
The answer is it depends, at least when you’re dealing with the city and federal departments of education, and the futures of 26 schools and access to $58 million are riding on the answer.
And the U.S. Department of Education said on Monday that regulations mandating the replacement of 50 percent of all teachers at schools under “turnaround” designation do have some flexibility that could allow deviation from the hard and fast firing rates.
The question was prompted by New York City DOE officials who for months had been telling residents and teachers that 50 percent of the faculty at 33 schools designated for “turnaround” status would be removed.
In January, Rosemary Stuart of the DOE told a group at Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood that federal regulations require them to remove at least 50 percent of the teachers in order to access the $58 million in federal turnaround money, or School Improvement Grants, while the teachers’ contract allows for the removal of no more than 50 percent.
“You do the math,” Stuart told the crowd.
Except that now the list of turnaround schools is down to 26, and Stuart’s math has gotten a lot harder, and a lot harder to explain.
“We’re trying to see what 50 percent looks like,” said DOE spokesman Frank Thomas on Monday.
Thomas was responding to a request for comment on a statement made to Grover Cleveland parents and teachers two weeks ago by Elaine Gorman, also of the DOE.
She said on March 29 at a civic association meeting in Ridgewood that while all teachers at the 26 schools must reinterview for their jobs, the hard and fast 50 percent rule “is not necessarily what will happen.”
So who was right? Both, according to Thomas, who said they are looking to see how much flexibility exists in the rules.
He said principals are being directed to pay more attention to bringing back the good, effective teachers than to the hard and fast 50 percent figure.
“We are primarily interested in getting back the teachers who are the best fit for the schools in their transition efforts,” he said.
Thomas said they are talking with federal representatives to see if they can count teachers who have left or been replaced after Cleveland and the other schools were put in “restart” mode, which had less draconian demands than the turnaround designation.
“We’ll be hiring back teachers and applying for the School Improvement Grants, and we’ll see how flexible they are,” he said.
Pretty flexible, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC.
“Under the SIG program, there is flexibility in place under the Restart, Transformation and Turnaround models that allows staff hired within the previous two years, as part of an intervention effort, to remain at the school under a new SIG intervention model,” the spokeswoman said in a statement issued by the department.
The previous intervention effort can have been made with SIG funds or carried out independently of the federal program.
The spokeswoman also said there is flexibility as well with the term “staff” in federal guidelines.
Representatives of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents New York City teachers, have been fighting to take the schools out of turnaround mode.
Union representatives declined to comment on the possible loosening of regulations or government arithmetic.