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Report recommends changing the way Syracuse pays teachers, suggests other reforms

A consulting company that spent some 15 months studying Syracuse school district spending released its final report today and recommends, among other changes, a new approach to teacher pay to help improve instruction.

In Syracuse, as in most districts, teacher raises are based on years of service and education they’ve attained. A better way, the report says, would be to reward teachers who demonstrate leadership and contributions to student success.

That, the report noted, would require negotiating a whole new kind of contract with the Syracuse Teachers Association, the teachers’ union.

The report

Rewarding, retaining and attracting high quality teachers is one of the most effective ways to improve instruction, says the report by Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit corporation based near Boston.

When it comes to layoffs, the district needs to find a way to protect talented young teachers, and it needs to focus on the removal of ineffective teachers, the report says. State law and local labor contracts make those things difficult to do, it acknowledges.

The analysis points out areas where the district can cut spending and areas where it needs to spend more. For instance, it said the Syracuse district has a relatively high number of teaching assistants. Some classes could be made larger. And it should spend more money to improve the quality of instruction and less to put more bodies in the classrooms.

Say Yes to Education Inc., another nonprofit that is working with the district to improve the city schools, hired ERS to do the analysis. A goal of the study was for ERS to help the district find ways to continue on with the SayYes program in the face of budget cuts, according to the report and its author, ERS Director Stephan Frank.

The district plans to cut 500 jobs next year to help balance its budget, including teachers and teaching assistants, but it also plans to slightly increase spending on Say Yes, from a projected $11 million this year to a tentative $12.8 million. That money comes from grants and from the district’s projected 2011-12 general fund budget of $334 million.

For the first time since the 1920s, school districts around the country are making real cuts, and it is imperative to use this as an opportunity to make real change, Frank said. Districts such as Syracuse make marginal changes as they go along, not the “radical transformation” they need, he said.

Frank sees opportunity for that type of change in Syracuse.

“What we really liked about the Syracuse-Say Yes partnership was that even though it may not have all of the same elements that we would recommend, it has a coherent strategy for transforming some of the core structures and really changing the way that services are provided,” he said.

Syracuse Teacher Association President Kevin Ahern was in general cool to ERS’s ideas about school reform. He said he hopes the district administration takes the recommendations with a grain of salt.

“I think ERS is a research organization and, you know, they look at numbers. I don’t think that they have a lot to offer in terms of school reform,” Ahern said.

He said the association has for years talked to the district administration about compensating teachers for leadership and work that improves instruction, but he doesn’t think raises for years of service will go away.

Ahern said putting more money into the quality of instruction as opposed to the number of people in the classroom would be a great idea if the district was not underfunded. The district is not overstaffed, class sizes are high and the reduction in special education teaching assistants will be a problem next school year, he said.

School board President Richard Strong said the board agreed to the ERS’s analysis to give transparency to the district’s budget process, and that happened. This year a community advisory committee, using information from ERS, worked with the district to help shape the budget.

The district is transitioning to a new superintendent, and she and the board will have the ERS study in hand to help them set goals, Strong said.

Superintendent Daniel Lowengard is retiring. Sharon Contreras, from the Providence, R.I. school district, takes over July 1.

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