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Will Groundhog Day finally end in Buffalo? Teacher eval deadline looms -- again

Teacher evaluations are starting to approach Peace Bridge proportions here in Buffalo.

Peace BridgeThe issue has been going round and round for months now -- and an agreement almost seems to be getting more elusive the longer it goes on.

Teachers complain that the state Education Department keeps finding new things to find flaws with in the district's evaluation agreement.

The state Education Department complains that the district keeps inserting new things that are problematic into the agreement.

District officials complain that they're caught in the middle of State Ed and the union.

Community pressure for a resolution is building.

And the deadline keeps getting pushed farther and farther away.

After the state suspended $5.6 million in federal grants to Buffalo in January, the district got to work trying to get its teacher and principal evaluation agreements up to snuff, and officials scheduled a hearing with the state Education Department on Feb. 22.

It's a little confusing, but the idea, per state regulations, is that the district has until four days prior to the hearing to submit its final effort at an evaluation agreement the state will approve. (Although for some reason, in the latest rescheduling, the state gave Buffalo until two days prior to the hearing to submit an agreement.) If the state doesn't approve the submitted agreement, then the district proceeds to the hearing, when district officials have the chance to challenge the legality of the state suspending the funds.

Well, that Feb. 22 hearing got rescheduled to March 22. Under state regulations, the district had to have its hearing no later than March 23.

No matter.

That hearing got rescheduled again, to March 29.

And then again, to April 4.

And now again, to April 26.

Yep, that's right. Four times. The hearing has been rescheduled four times already. So if it seems like this thing has been dragging on for quite some time, that's because it has.

So the question on everyone's mind is: Will it get rescheduled again?

It seems like the answer this time is no.

In one of the most recent letters to the district from State Ed, Associate Commissioner Anita M. Murphy said that if the district fails to get Rumore's signature by 5 p.m. today, "the hearing will proceed as scheduled" on Thursday.

Dixon said she does not plan to request an adjournment.

"At this point the letter makes it sound like it's not even an option," she said. "The only way I would ask for an adjournment would be if it were on the advice of the state Education Department itself."

Of course, anything is possible.

I asked State Ed spokesman Jonathan Burman if there was any chance the hearing would be postponed again. "We just can't answer that at this point," he told me.

Would there be any benefit to delaying the hearing yet again?

Well, I was out of town last week (at the Kiplinger Fellowship in Public Affairs Journalism, at Ohio State) so I wasn't here when the union's council of delegates voted overwhelmingly to reject the agreement. But I was in touch with some of the delegates immediately after the vote.

What they told me was that it's not as if there's a particular element of the evaluation agreement that teachers are objecting to -- something that could be worked out, if only they had a few more days.

"Most teachers believe the way money is being spent will not change anything -- and in some cases, the money has made things worse -- such as removing veteran principals and replacing them with new, inexperienced principals," one delegate told me.

"Many teachers feel State Ed created this quagmire we find ourselves in now. People who believe money will solve this problem unfortunately are not in the trenchees and frankly do not understand the real issues. We already spend more money per pupil than any other state in the country."

Another delegate told me that teachers at the six persistently lowest achieving schools -- the schools that lost the $5.6 million -- did not support the evaluation plan.

"They were not on board, and wanted everyone's support," that delegate told me.

Rumore at BTFThe union president, Phil Rumore, told me on Monday there is no way he will sign the agreement as it stands.

He no longer cited the concerns he raised last week -- related to the state's willingness to approve the agreement and a chart used for scoring high school teachers -- but raised other concerns on Monday.

"There are still major concerns regarding how to incorporate English language learners' and special education students' standardized test scores into a teacher's evaluation," he said. "We brought that up with the district at the beginning but we were under the gun. We didn't really get to it. But it is still a major concern of teachers."

Rumore thinks the state should just release the money to Buffalo now, and give the district an extra few months to work out the details.

He's calling for the district and the union to form committees to resolve issues related to special education students and those who do not speak English. He has asked Dixon to provide teachers with release time so they can meet on school days as members of the committees; he has offered to provide meals. The agreement could be reached by August or September, he says.

The district and the union a year ago -- as part of Buffalo's application for federal school improvement grants -- agreed to implement teacher evaluations at the six schools by Dec. 31, 2011.

Rumore is suggesting, though, that the agreement for 2011-12 would not even be reached until a couple of months into 2012-13.

Rumore says that's not a problem.


"Even if we had it in place (in January) when the commissioner said it had to be in place to get the funding, it realistically wouldn't have been able to be implemented (for 2011-12) anyway," he said. "So why not say we'll give you the funding anyway if you get it in place by September?"

- Mary Pasciak

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