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New policy sidelines teachers at cost of $6m

Four months into the school year, more than 70 Boston public school teachers still have not been assigned to their own classrooms, costing the school system about $6 million in salary and benefits.

Almost all of the 72 sidelined teachers have been relegated to “co-teaching” positions created specifically for them because of their predicament.

The teachers, many of whom returned from leaves of absences or were ousted from underperforming schools, failed to secure new classrooms under a change in hiring practices last year. That change, a loophole in the union contract, allows principals to bypass internal candidates if an outside applicant is a better fit for the job.

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But the teachers must remain on the payroll because they have earned “permanent” status and in most cases have satisfactory performance evaluations, preventing the school system from terminating them.

The new hiring process aims to elevate the quality of instruction in all schools by assembling a staff of teachers with a shared vision and approach to teaching and learning — an approach applauded by many business leaders and philanthropists.

The change, however, is raising questions about whether the displaced teachers will ever secure their own classrooms again or whether other teachers could join their ranks, especially as principals continue to have the ability to hire from the outside.

That prospect is not sitting well with the teachers union, which filed a grievance last year over the hiring practice. An arbitrator’s ruling is expected soon.

“I think it is a foolish waste of scarce department resources,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “I don’t think there is any other way to put it.”

But Ross Wilson, the school system’s assistant superintendent for human capital, said he is hopeful the displaced teachers will find permanent posts this fall.

He said the co-teaching positions provide an opportunity for them to bolster their skills by working with and learning from an exemplary colleague, which should make them more appealing to principals.

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“We’ve seen some educators move up because of the support they are receiving,” Wilson said.

The number of sidelined teachers has dropped since August, when 110 teachers were displaced, because many of the teachers have resigned or retired, school officials said.

Under state law, local school districts are forbidden from laying off any teacher with permanent status who has a good performance evaluation if a position for which the teacher is qualified is currently being filled by a less senior teacher.

That requirement means that Boston most likely will always have displaced teachers under its new hiring practice, making it a potentially pricy
endeavor during tight fiscal times.

In the case of the displaced teachers, only four have been rated unsatisfactory, and an additional 10 have been rated in need of improvement.

The school system has launched a $25 million fundraising campaign to help cover the costs of retraining teachers as well as pursuing other human resource initiatives, such as developing new principals.

Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent watchdog funded by businesses and philanthropists, said it is too soon to know whether state law should be changed so the school system has more flexibility to terminate permanent teachers who fail to gain new classroom assignments.

Before such a determination can be made, he said, the school system needs to study the first few years of the hiring effort to see whether displaced teachers improve their craft and eventually land their own classrooms again.

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“Yes, it’s expensive, but we knew it would be expensive,” said Tyler, whose group supports the new hiring practice. “I think we will find it will result in teachers better prepared for teaching in the classroom.”

Under the previous hiring method, schools could not, in most cases, hire from outside the system until a pool of internal candidates had been depleted.

Often, principals and their hiring committees were forced to take internal teachers who were a poor match.

The process of placing hundreds of internal candidates took months and pushed the hiring of new teachers into the summer, a challenging time because many of the most talented teachers already have been snatched up by other districts.

But now, by giving schools greater latitude in hiring, the school system has reversed the trend of hiring most new teachers in the summer, and in the process can hire teachers with more years of experience.

Boston Public Schools employs about 4,500 teachers. The teachers union contract caps class sizes at 31 students in high school, the high 20s in the middle grades, and the low 20s in elementary schools.

The school system expects to fill between 700 and 800 teaching positions for this coming fall.

“All of this is to make sure we have a competitive hiring process and we hire great teachers early on,” Wilson said.

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