The following piece was written by my friend and comrade Shaun Joseph, who first figured out and formulated the best explanation of the “R’s in pool” system, after an email exchange we had about it. He did the legwork, and it’s this kind of explanation that we need about every aspect of the Providence Public Schools.
In the haze of misinformation emitted by the union-busters in the debate over the Providence teachers, no issue is perhaps more hazy and misinformed than the saga of the so-called “Regulars in Pool” or “Rs in Pool.” Not only is the matter opaque to the ordinary hapless citizen, many within the school system don’t seem to understand it, and even the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) has been oddly quiet about it. Nor has Providence’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal (“All the news that’s fit to reprint”), been much help: an extraordinarily confusing article by Linda Borg (“Providence teacher dismissals would end costly substitutes,” March 8th) starts off by repeating the Taveras administration’s claims that the “Rs in Pool” are paid “whether or not they work,” then concedes it’s never actually happened, then says it could happen next year if teachers are laid-off instead of dismissed, then quotes the city auditor saying this doesn’t happen because, well, it’s stupid to pay people who aren’t working. Clear?
Untangling the story required some hours of connecting the dots from disparate sources, some amount of inference, and a testy online exchange with Matt Jerzyk, the mayor’s evil vizier. After excavating through the administration’s layers of anti-teacher propaganda, it’s possible to reconstruct the sequence of events that resulted in the creation of the “Rs in Pool” program. Instead of finding a malicious scheme to pay teachers for nothing, we discover that the program is a creation of the very “school reform” chicanery embraced by Taveras Mission Control–and it’s been unexpectedly expensive due to the classically “consultocratic” mismanagement of the Providence Public School District (PPSD) under Superintendent Tom Brady. The PTU leadership, for its part, finds itself hoist with its own “partnership” petard, as its attempt to compromise with the PPSD over seniority rights has become a big stick with which it is beat.
So let’s see what really happened.
Present at the creation
In 2009 the PPSD, under orders from RI Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist, decided that protecting experienced teachers was bad for our children (ie, expensive for our grown-ups) and moved to introduce “Criterion [sic] Based Hiring” (CBH). (English teachers, or those who paid attention to their English teachers, will note that this should be “CriteriA,” plural, since presumably people are hired based on more than one metric. Though perhaps, as my friend Brian notes, this is a Freudian slip, since the sole “criterion” appears to be: how much will you cost?) The PTU sort of contested this, albeit with one hand tied behind its back, since its parent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has generally consented to all kinds of anti-teacher attacks under the disastrous presidency of Randi Weingarten.
I couldn’t find a source that spells out the resulting bastard system, but in practice it seems to hew fairly closely to the “hybrid” proposal presented by the PPSD to Gist in April 2009 (p. 13). If a full-time teacher is laid-off, seeks placement through CBH, and is not rehired, she becomes eligible to sub as a “Regular in Pool.” Like other subs “in pool,” this means that the teacher has to be “on call” throughout the school year, even though she is only paid for days when she does work (the mayor’s propaganda notwithstanding). The per diem rate for “Rs in Pool” is pro-rated to the teacher’s previous salary; ie, you take the full-time salary and divide it by the number of days in the academic year.
According to City Auditor Matthew Clarkin’s presentation to the City Council, the average “R in Pool” is at Step 9 ($62,176/year) whereas “Long-Term Substitutes in Pool” max out at Step 4 ($45,617/year). The “Rs” also carry over family health coverage, sick leave, and other fringe benefits–provided they are called up enough–while the “LTSs” enjoy only individual health coverage and no other benefits. Additionally, PPSD is obligated to call up “Rs” before any other category of substitute. They are, therefore, substantially more expensive than other substitutes–but they are also highly experienced teachers, very recently full-timers, who formally intend to return to full-time employment in Providence schools, and in the meantime remain “on call” to the district.
What is Taveras Mission Control saying about its plans for Providence when it ponders a cut of over 25% in base pay for these dedicated professionals, plus the wholesale theft of their accumulated benefits? And what is it saying about itself when it relies on the most dishonest rhetoric to justify these Scott Walker-type policies?
From Harvard to hoopla
In his extraordinary campaign to confuse the public, Angel Taveras issued his so-called “Facts about Financial Liability”. The blockbuster fiction–sorry, “fact”–of this tantrum is that “[Regulars in Pool] get paid whether or not they are working.” (Emphasis and boldface in original.) Makes teachers look pretty bad, which I suppose is the administration’s “criterion” for what it tells the public. But is it true?
It’s interesting that this remarkable claim, which appears in the Mayor’s statement on March 1 and the ProJo article of March 8, is not repeated in Clarkin’s March 14 presentation to the City Council. Matt Jerzyk told me that the Mayor’s statement is “undisputed” by the PTU, which is false (although Jerzyk later claimed that the union admitted it “in meetings”). In short, other than the Mayor and people repeating the Mayor, I cannot find any independent verification of this claim, even in principle.
There are two possible factual bases for Taveras’s whopper: first, the fact that “Rs in Pool” must be called first; second, the fact that “Rs” retain their sick time.
Since “Rs” must be called up before any other category of substitutes, the only way to fill a position with a less-senior sub while there are still “Rs” available is to pay the “Rs.” But why would the district ever do that, when it could just fill the position with an “R”? It’s as if Taveras, seeing a group of people waiting in line, were to complain: “Look at those jerks in the front–they don’t have to stand in line like everyone else!”
As for the second point: because “Rs in Pool” retain their sick time benefits, it’s possible for them to be called up but call in sick, requiring another sub to be called up. I guess you could call this getting paid without working, but then the administration should be arguing for the elimination of all sick time entirely–maybe it would be helpful to have sick teachers interacting with hundreds of kids all day, who knows? In any event, the “Rs” are actually fairly sparing with their sick time: Clarkin reports that, as of March 7, the 45 current “Rs” have discharged 230 sick/personal days. It’s not clear if he means during the current academic year or since the fall of 2009, but even assuming the former, that amounts to just over five days per employee on average, a very modest amount.
We should stress, incidentally, that the “Rs in Pool” typically work every day of the school year. At the start of the 2009-10 academic year, there were 118 “Rs in Pool,” falling to 79 by Fall 2010, and 45 currently. The PPSD estimates that it needs around 200 subs daily. (This turns out to be a serious underestimate; see below.) Therefore every “R” will be called up every day. Isn’t it fair to compensate them with the wages and benefits they were making before they got laid off?
In his “Facts” statement, Taveras offers the following scary calculation:
Take this example: If Providence closes six schools and lays off 200 teachers, each of these teachers could become an “R in pool.” This would create an unprecedented cost to the district: 200 teachers, multiplied by full salary and benefits at approximately $100,000 each, equaling $20 million. In this scenario, closing schools would not save the City money.
An immediate problem with this calculation is compensation estimate of “approximately $100,000 each.” Per Clarkin, the highest compensation amongst current “Rs in Pool” is $87,977/year, which includes all wages, benefits, retirement, and FICA. It’s pretty dull-witted to “approximate” this with $100,000, especially when you intend to multiply the “approximation” by 200! Furthermore, it’s completely dishonest to use the maximum compensation for calculation when the proper measure is clearly the mean. Finally, it’s virtually impossible that every laid-off teacher would become an “R in Pool”: many highly-experienced teachers will retire or find other work. (Hooray?) Thus the whole “example” is manifestly absurd, tying together a series of ludicrous assumptions into a fairy-tale fiscal nightmare.
What’s behind the furor over the “Regulars in Pool”? Beyond the general need to find a scapegoat for Taveras’s program of child sacrifice, I believe this is also a move to draw attention away from the spectacular mismanagement of Providence schools under the leadership of Tom Brady. For the real scandal in substitute teaching is not the “Rs in Pool,” but the PPSD’s breath-taking cost overruns, which are perfectly correlated with their attacks on seniority and No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top punitive “interventions.”
For FY2010, the PPSD budgeted $8.7 million for substitutes; they actually spent about $13 million, an overrun of nearly 50%. By way of contrast, the district spent $9.2 million in FY2006 and $10 million in FY2007, even though the teaching staff was much larger. How was this possible?
An interesting document in this regard is the “Teacher Absence Report for School Year 2009-2010,” delivered to the Providence School Board on March 28. Although the report does not provide historical series data, it makes it clear that PPSD faced serious challenges in the 2009-10 year. Traditionally the district has estimated that it needs about 200 subs in pool to cover teacher absences; but in 2009-10, this level would have only been sufficient in September and October; after that, the mean monthly level of absences ranged from 222 (January) to 278 (June).
Anyone who’s been in a workplace after major layoffs could have predicted this. Morale tanks; uncertainty, cynicism, and stress increases; more work gets loaded onto fewer shoulders. Additionally, as senior teachers were pushed out in favor of the less-experienced, it’s reasonable to infer that teaching was destabilized: turnover for less-experienced teachers is notoriously high, especially when young teachers lack a supportive environment–as opposed to a “transformational” one of permanent crisis–and access to highly-experienced colleagues.
More research and a careful, independent audit of the district would be necessary to fully explain the PPSD’s astounding cost overruns–but unfortunately, the district has little incentive to investigate itself, and since the School Board is appointed by the mayor, it’s politically incapable of playing a proper oversight role. The administration has instead fallen back to the old “blame unions first” line so popular amongst the big business and financial interests that constitute the mayor’s real constituency.
The “Rs in Pool” program will probably be eliminated in the next round of contract negotiations, for better or worse, so the issue may lose its immediate relevance. However, it is an important example of 1) the dishonest, union-busting character of the Taveras administration; 2) the disorganization and lack of realistic planning at the PPSD; 3) the bad compromises into which the PTU and AFT have been maneuvered through their foolish semi-embrace of the “school reform” racket; 4) the lack of respect for teachers, especially the most experienced; and 5) the general sacrifice of public education to a self-contradictory combination of penny-pinching and faddishness.
In the struggle to defend public education, teachers, students, parents, and all thinking members of the community share common interests. It’s going to be a hard fight, with many defeats up ahead, but the recently-formed Coalition to Defend Public Education, and groups like it, are doing the essential work to ensure the tide will turn. Join them!