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Education Dept., city school district add to pressure as teachers weigh latest offer

The state Education Department and Buffalo's school district sought Wednesday to ratchet up the pressure in advance of a critical meeting today of the city teachers union on the stalled system for evaluating teacher performance at six troubled schools.

Education Department officials here said the months-long dispute will be resolved and they will approve a new teacher-evaluation system if the Buffalo Teachers Federation signs off on a memorandum of understanding approved Wednesday by the district and a union representing school principals.

An Education Department source said the department is seeking to make it "crystal clear" that the new memorandum of understanding is acceptable and would end the fight that has raged for months and divided various stakeholders concerned about improving the city's troubled education system.

School officials Wednesday afternoon submitted a memorandum of understanding signed by the district and a union representing principals for a new evaluation system meant to judge the effectiveness of teachers and principals at six low-performing schools in return for additional state aid from Albany.

But a separate memorandum submitted to the Education Department includes only the signature of Amber M. Dixon, the district's interim superintendent, and a signature area for the BTF was left blank.

The evaluation system -- and $5.6 million in additional funding for the schools -- cannot be approved by Albany without the BTF's approval. State officials said the Buffalo Public Schools risk losing $26 million in additional funding in the coming school year if the current dispute remains unresolved.

Tuesday, BTF President Philip Rumore said his union was concerned because an April 5 letter from the Education Department left the door open -- again -- for the state to reject a new evaluation system.

Wednesday, though, the department sought to flatly end that concern.

In a letter obtained by The Buffalo News, Anita Murphy, an associate commissioner at the department, wrote to Dixon on Wednesday evening that the new memorandum of understanding submitted hours earlier "is acceptable if signed by your teachers union representative."

Without Rumore's signature, Murphy wrote, Buffalo's additional funding "will not be restored."

District officials could not be reached to comment Wednesday night.

Earlier in the evening, before the letter to Dixon was sent, Rumore said the school superintendent was aware that the new memorandum is "problematic" because the union has raised concerns about a provision involving a scoring grid for high school teachers.

"That's her decision," Rumore said of Dixon's move to send the memorandum without his signature on it to state officials.

The union's council of delegates -- representing teachers across the various city schools -- is due to meet today. There will likely be no deal to vote on "unless they want to approve it even with the bad part in it," Rumore said of the new memorandum that contains the objectionable provision involving high school teacher evaluations.

The BTF is threatening to sue the state Education Department over the matter.

The department said the BTF has until Tuesday to approve the latest memorandum or a hearing will be held next Thursday in which the district would appear in Albany before agency officials to make a plea for the funding. The appeal hearing already has been postponed a couple of times as officials here seek to give the district and the BTF time to strike a final deal.

But the department is all but certain to reject such an appeal, in part, because it would not want to signal wiggle room for Buffalo at a time when all 700 school districts in the state in the coming year will have to be submitting their own teacher-evaluation plans to comply with a new state law.

The fight under way in Buffalo affects teacher and principal evaluations at only six low-performing schools.

Still to be resolved in Buffalo, and the other districts statewide, is the new system agreed to last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature. Under that new system, districts have until January to get new teacher-evaluation systems -- based on a number of criteria, including student test scores -- or risk losing their share of an overall 4 percent increase in state aid.

Also still unresolved statewide is whether teacher evaluations can be made public or provided to parents or kept private as a part of their personnel files.

The Buffalo News reported Wednesday that Johns Hopkins University has threatened to end its upcoming effort to help turn around student performance at two high schools -- Lafayette and East -- if the teacher-evaluation fight involving the union, district and the state is not resolved by May 1.