NYC Says It Will End Absent Teacher Reserve “Rubber Rooms”

The city said it is disbanding the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of teachers who have been cut from schools for budgetary or performance issues, and reassigning most of them to new positions.

“Moving forward, districts and principals will work together to identify and immediately place ATR teachers where their support and skills are most needed,” education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said. 

Some teachers are put in the pool while they undergo investigations for misconduct, but O’Hanlon said the reserve mostly consists of teachers who were “excessed” for financial reasons. She said any teachers in the ATR because they face disciplinary action will not be reassigned. “The vast majority in the pool are there as a result of school budget changes and/or closures and have no adverse history,” O’Hanlon said. 

About 800 teachers are currently in the reserve, O’Hanlon said, although some of them were already deployed to schools this year to help address the increased staffing needs that came with hybrid learning. “Our new approach to the ATR will provide much needed stability to school communities after a challenging year, and ATR teachers who have become enmeshed in their schools will become fully-funded, permanent employees,” she said. 

The education department’s central office will cover the salaries of teachers who are reassigned from the reserve this year, and potentially going forward if they stay in the same positions. Since 2017, the de Blasio Administration has offered incentives and subsidies to schools that hire from the pool. 

The end of the ATR may mark the end of the long legacy of New York City’s infamous reassignment centers, also known as Rubber Rooms.

The ATR began in 2005, the result of a deal between former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, as a way to give principals more flexibility to replace tenured teachers while allowing teachers to continue to draw a salary. But the empty offices that once warehoused excessed teachers, sometimes for years, became notorious. The Village Voice described the Rubber Room as “a Kafkaesque holding pen, where taxpayers continue to pay their salaries for months as they wait for the glacial pace of what passes for justice, meted out by a sluggish school district and intransigent union.” The Rubber Room has been woven into the plots of Law and Order and the Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt. In 2010, the Bloomberg Administration and the union agreed to disband the physical reassignment centers and assign teachers in the reserve to do clerical work instead.

“The ATR pool was always a waste of teacher talent and taxpayer money,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. 

Principals described mixed experiences with teachers hired from the reserve. “Sometimes it’s really great newer teachers,” one Brooklyn principal said. “Sometimes it’s people who are more work than the kids.”

Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said he worried the move would impinge on administrators’ ability to hire the right people for open jobs. “We commend the DOE’s commitment to fund the currently assigned reserve teachers already placed in schools,” he said. “However, we are disappointed that going forward, forced placements will impact school budgets and limit a principal’s authority to fill vacancies with the candidate that best fits the needs of their school community.”  

The decision to redeploy excessed teachers comes as schools staff up for expanded summer school offerings and for the next school year that begins this fall. Some administrators have said they’re worried about finding enough educators to work this summer. Additionally, while there will be no remote option for families in September, social distancing guidelines may necessitate smaller cohorts and additional staff in some schools.