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Boston schools bypass internal hiring of some teachers

Newcomers sideline some system veterans

School administrators in Boston have long wanted the freedom to fill classroom posts with teachers of their own choosing, passing over internal candidates and hiring from outside the system if need be. This year, relying on a loophole in the union contract, they have done just that.

But freedom has come with a considerable cost: With the opening of schools just days away, more than 100 veteran teachers have no class assignments at all, sidelined despite a cost in salary and benefits of more than $10 million.

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Though lacking classes to teach, the 110 teachers will remain on the payroll because they have earned “permanent” status. It is largely not an issue of competence: In most cases the teachers’ performance evaluations were satisfactory. Just five of the teachers have received unsatisfactory evaluations and another 12 were deemed in need of improvement, according to School Department data requested by the Globe. Only two teachers were rated exemplary.

School officials say they made the change in hiring to ensure that each school can choose the best teachers, ones who match its approach to education. And they stress that the unchosen teachers will not be sitting around with nothing to do while collecting a paycheck. Instead, the school system said, it is assigning the teachers “suitable” temporary tasks, such as filling in as substitutes or working along side another classroom teacher.

The teachers could eventually land their own classrooms during the course of the year, officials said, as resignations or retirements pop up. The average annual teacher salary in Boston is $88,000.

“It’s a small cost for us, overall, to make sure we have a great teacher in every classroom,” said Ross Wilson, assistant superintendent for human capital. “Instead of forcing the placement of teachers in the classroom, we are allowing schools to choose the teachers they want.”

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the mostly positive evaluation data on the sidelined teachers raise questions about why the School Department is hiring teachers from outside when they have veteran teachers who clearly know their craft and are getting results.

“Given their level of accomplishment, to have these folks unplaced is not only a disservice to students but it is waste of resources and scarce funds,” Stutman said.

The union has filed a grievance about the new hiring practice, which is now in arbitration.

The change also may have had one unintended consequence, according to the data. A disproportionate share of veteran teachers without jobs are black, accounting for 32 percent of those in that predicament, although black teachers make up only about 22 percent of the teaching force.

“It’s disturbing,” said Johnny McInnis, a Boston school teacher and president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. “There are a lot of great teachers in those numbers.”

The problem comes as the school system is facing criticism that its revamped teacher evaluation system is disproportionately giving lower ratings to teachers of color and as the system continues to operate in violation of a federal court order that requires a quarter of its teaching staff to be black.

Letting schools hire the teachers they want represents a dramatic change. Union contract rules had long dictated where teachers get placed.

It used to be that schools could not, in most cases, hire from outside the system until a pool of internal candidates had been depleted. Often principals and hiring committees were forced to take internal candidates who were a poor match.

The months-long process of placing internal candidates also pushed the hiring of new teachers into the summer, a less than ideal time to go on the open market because many of the most talented teachers have been snatched up by other districts.

But last fall, John McDonough, the interim superintendent, revealed he would take advantage of a little-used provision in the teachers contract that would allow schools to bypass many of the hiring requirements spelled out in the contract.

That provision allows school officials to immediately consider outside candidates if they classify a position as requiring a special skill or extra duty. For instance, the winning candidate might have to do tutoring after school but would receive an extra $1,250 stipend in return.

It is a pricey endeavor. In addition to covering the salaries of permanent teachers without positions, the stipends are adding up to $1.2 million. The school system has launched a $25 million fund-raising campaign to help cover the costs.

School officials say the change has resulted in a successful reversal of the troubling trend of hiring most new teachers in the summer. This year, the system hired 83 percent of new teachers before July 1, compared with 9 percent the previous year, according to School Department data. Officials also say they slightly increased the diversity of teaching ranks.

“I think we’ve had a great hiring year,” Wilson said. “It’s a complete culture shift in how we post jobs.”

He said the number of unplaced permanent teachers falls within the range officials initially anticipated, 75 to 150.

The hiring season this year started off with approximately 1,000 vacant positions, one of the highest levels in year. Helping to swell the numbers, four underperforming schools, including two going into state receivership, dismissed nearly all their teachers, which in turn increased the number of internal candidates needing jobs.

The system employs about 4,300 teachers, serving 57,000 students at 128 schools. Most of the schools open Thursday.

Ultimately, about 350 teachers wound up in the school system’s long controversial “excess pool”— teachers without jobs because they had been on leave, were dismissed from an underperforming school, or their jobs were eliminated because of budget cuts.

School officials say teachers in the excess pool who were the most aggressive in applying for positions had the most luck in securing one. On average, the successful candidates sent out 19 applications compared with 12 for those not successful.

Some excess teachers did not submit a single application, school officials said.

Education advocates critical of the city’s powerful teachers union joined many parents and administrators in applauding the new hiring approach.

“The previous system was really insane, and it did not serve the system well at all,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that is helping the school system with its fund-raising campaign and that has long called for giving schools more hiring autotomy. “I think it makes an enormous difference in the morale of the school that everyone is pulling in the same direction and wants to be there.”

Kristin Barrali, who has a son at the Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury and another at the Bates Elementary School in Roslindale, recalls that under the old hiring system, schools sometimes took a gamble with internal candidates. She said one year the Mendell got an excellent veteran kindergarten teacher, but another time when she sat on the school’s hiring committee she cried after the interviews.

“I felt like we were forced to make a decision that was not good for kids,” she said. “Schools should be able to hire the teachers who are the best fit.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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