By Sarah Carr, The New Orleans Times-Picayune
Monday August 03, 2009, 7:15 AM
Two years ago, New Orleans school officials in desperate need of teachers scoured job fairs across the country, advertised online, partnered with nonprofits and offered recruits hefty relocation bonuses -- all in an effort to ensure that the city had enough teachers in its classrooms when school opened.
Then last year, the district found itself in nearly the opposite posture: awash in resumes, with 24 applicants vying for every spot in teachNOLA, a teacher training and recruiting program.
With intense competition the new norm, even at some of the city's historically hard-to-staff schools, the Recovery School District, which opens most of its schools this week, has arrived at a crossroads that would have been unimaginable two years ago: District officials are poised to lay off dozens of teachers today -- many of them veterans.
Predictably, the situation drew howls from several educators facing the prospect of unemployment.
"There's room for the young and enthusiastic, God bless them, but not at the expense of the people who have been here for many years and understand the culture, " said Maryjane Potts, who taught art at the RSD's Sylvanie Williams Elementary School last year but has not yet found a teaching position for this year.
Recovery District Superintendent Paul Vallas called any implication that the district favored hiring new, young teachers false, and said hiring authority lies with principals.
"They make the decision to hire: lock, stock and barrel, " he said. "We don't guarantee any teacher, veteran or (new), a job."
Last spring, district officials put Potts in a "surplus" teacher pool when they consolidated Sylvanie Williams and Laurel elementary schools. Many of the 187 surplus teachers were victims of school consolidations or the transfer of portions of some RSD schools to charter school operators.
Surplus teachers did not lose their positions because of poor performance.
District officials encouraged these teachers to seek out new positions with the Recovery District or dozens of independent charter schools in the city. About 80 of those teachers had no luck -- at least with the RSD -- and received letters last week informing them that their jobs would be terminated today. Another 30 staff members, including clerical workers and teacher's aides, also received the notices.
"If you are going to do a reduction in force, why not just say that's what it is, " Potts said, adding that Sylvanie Williams teachers were told they would have positions at the consolidated school. "Don't come in and blindside everyone the last week in July."
Vallas said the surplus teachers were never guaranteed jobs but that more than 100 of them found new positions in the Recovery District, including most Sylvanie Williams teachers. He added that many of the district's principals prefer veteran teachers, noting that more than two-thirds of the new teachers hired by RSD principals have teaching experience.
The principals' hiring "reflects their desire to have more mixed staff in terms of experience, " he said.
Principals have power
New Orleans public schools now feature completely decentralized hiring: Seniority guarantees nothing, collective bargaining does not exist, and teachers keep their jobs only at the discretion of their principals.
For many officials, including Vallas and several principals, the new system rightfully puts the power in the hands of the people who know their staffs and their campus needs best.
"I think hiring this year has been really great in the sense that principals are having really candid conversations about what their expectation is for the school, why a teacher may or may not be a good fit, and what the year will look like, " said Kira Orange Jones, the executive director of Teach For America's operations in the Greater New Orleans region. The program places elite college graduates in disadvantaged school communities for at least two years.
But to Daphanne Poole, a surplus teacher who has yet to find a job, the hiring process seemed unfair from the start. Poole, a longtime New Orleans educator who taught at Frederick Douglass High School for the second half of the last school year, said the number of job applicants dwarfed the number of openings at the job fairs and networking events she attended. Some schools did not even send representatives, she added.
Through professional contacts, Poole had leads on two possible positions in the Recovery School District. But, in both cases, school leaders told her before formal interviews that the district's central office had sent someone else over to take the job, she said, a concern echoed by other surplus teachers.
Last month, Poole missed one of the final local job fairs because of a medical procedure. Though she had wanted to attend the fair, Poole kept her appointment, fearing she soon would be without health insurance coverage, she said. Now, she's applying to districts as far away as Alaska.
Vallas denied that the district ever asked principals to choose some teachers over others. He said Recovery District officials suggested that principals first look at the list of surplus teachers when filling vacancies. The district also provided resumes of surplus teachers upon request to principals trying to staff hard-to-fill vacancies, Vallas said.
250 new arrivals
In interviews, four surplus teachers said they felt that Teach For America candidates were given preference over veterans in the RSD's hiring process, something Vallas and Teach for America's Orange Jones strongly deny.
"I went to the job fair and stood for hours in line. I called all the places they said were going to need people. I went through the whole process, and I got nothing, " said one surplus teacher who did not want her name used for fear it would make it harder to get a job.
The teacher said she checks the job-vacancy list every day, but whenever "you call the principals they say, 'Oh, we've already filled the position.' "
Orange Jones said her program's teachers are in the same straits as veteran educators, and are not guaranteed jobs by the RSD. She added that many of the Teach For America applicants have been turned away by multiple schools, and that some also ended up in the surplus pool.
The Recovery School District has hired about 20 new Teach For America teachers for this school year so far and has a contract to hire as many as 30 teachers through the program, though Orange Jones and Vallas say the contract does not mandate that the district hire that many.
In all, about 250 new Teach For America instructors arrived in the New Orleans region this summer to work in the Recovery District; New Orleans charters; and the schools in St. Bernard, Jefferson and St. John the Baptist parishes.
Dozens of those teachers don't yet have jobs, though Orange Jones said her organization is "used to teachers getting hired right up until the first days of school, " she said.
Brian Thevenot contributed to this report.
Sarah Carr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3497.
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