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BTF battle applauded by teachers statewide; Unions back challenge to state on evaluations

The Buffalo Teachers Federation has been getting its share of lumps for refusing to go along with the school district and the state Education Department in the creation of a new evaluation system for teacher performance.
But teachers unions across the state are watching the fight being waged in Buffalo, and for some, the BTF has become an overnight hero.

"They're standing up and saying the emperor has no clothes," said Patricia Puleo, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers in Westchester County. "Someone has to turn to the state Education Department and say, 'Your tests are faulty, you're not taking into account student attendance, you're not giving us enough time.' "

Teachers unions and school boards statewide are also asking a single question: Could the Buffalo dispute spread to other districts as the state prepares to require all schools to develop teacher evaluations?

"It's certainly shaping up to be a more serious standoff than originally intended by either side, with very strong implications beyond Buffalo," said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. "I would say it has direct implications statewide and indirectly nationwide."

That's because teachers in urban districts such as Buffalo, Rochester and Yonkers are concerned that the broader evaluation plans in the coming year will not take into account student absenteeism rates when judging the performance of teachers.

"This is not a frivolous question," Urbanski said. "When teacher evaluations are partially based on student learning progress, do you believe it is fair or not to take into account student absenteeism? Or, put more crudely, can you teach them if you can't catch them? The Buffalo teachers are saying, 'No. It wouldn't be fair.' "

The BTF has refused to go along with the district's and state education officials' efforts to put in place a teacher-evaluation system at six low-performing schools. Without it, the state is declining to release $5.6 million in turnaround grants for the schools. And now the BTF is threatening a lawsuit against the state.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said Friday that he approved six of seven new school improvement plans for the 2012-13 school year in Buffalo but cautioned that three are contingent on teacher-evaluation agreements. And he threatened to seek the closure of Lafayette High School if no teacher-evaluation agreement is in place by July 1.

For some teachers in other parts of the state, Buffalo is serving as a possible canary in a coal mine.

"I think the BTF is generally admired for having the courage to stand up and speak truth to power. I think they have considerable support statewide," Urbanski said, "and lots of folks are rooting for them to continue their firm stand."

Education and school board officials say they have not seen wrangling in other districts across the state similar to what is occurring in Buffalo. But they privately worry that the challenges -- state education officials only last week released guidelines for developing new teacher-evaluation systems -- have not yet played out.

And there is a concern that if the BTF can stare down a deal despite the threat of losing $5.6 million, other unions might take the same approach despite Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's vow to withhold scheduled 4 percent state aid increases to any schools that do not have teacher-evaluation plans in place by January.

"There's always that concern," said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

Districts statewide are monitoring the Buffalo controversy even though the stare-down here so far has been an anomaly, Kremer said.

BTF President Philip Rumore is in a war of words with King. Rumore led a walkout by some union leaders during a recent King appearance in Buffalo before the New York State United Teachers union.

Kremer said, "I've spoken to the state education commissioner, and he's frustrated. Phil has been around 30 years. This is a guy who has lasted through all of this. He's developed a power base and a structure that allows him to do things that are pretty extraordinary."

It appears that, as of now, upward of 15 percent of the state's 700 school districts are facing enough hurdles that teacher-evaluation deals are unlikely anytime soon, Kremer said.

State education officials have made clear that students with high absentee rates will not be exempt from teacher evaluations, leaving many districts and unions now debating how student attendance figures will be verified, he said.

"The [question] is why will the Buffalo community not stand up and say, enough -- that you are kissing off $5.6 million? What's surprising to us on the outside is why the community is not coming forward saying, 'We've got to get this thing fixed,' " the head of the Albany-based school boards group said.

Still, the Buffalo fight is "certainly piquing the curiosity of leaders around the state" over the issues of student attendance and the state Education Department withholding $5.6 million for Buffalo's schools, said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT.

The dispute highlights what Iannuzzi called "the failure of the state Education Department to engage local leaders in a process and simply reject and withhold money, which affects students more than adults."

"For that reason, people are watching Buffalo closely," Iannuzzi said of the evaluation stalemate.

At a meeting at the state Education Department last week in Albany of various stakeholders, including union and district representatives, one-third of the hands went up when an official asked whether student absenteeism is an issue in the teacher evaluation debate, several attendees said.

But student absenteeism is not the only concern the union has with teacher evaluations.

For instance, an urban district might have many non-English-speaking students skewing numbers, which Albany officials say will be taken into account in the state-controlled portion of the upcoming evaluation systems.

In wealthier suburban districts, one official noted, a far different problem might arise: How is a third-grade teacher whose students start the year at a fifth-grading reading level going to be judged? Does that teacher have to bring those third-graders up to a sixth-grade reading level to get an acceptable performance rating?

Teachers are open to the new evaluation system, according to officials at NYSUT, the parent union of the BTF. But concerns remain about the way the state carries out its standardized testing of pupils, on which teacher evaluations will be based.

Iannuzzi thinks Buffalo's situation will not necessarily play out at the vast majority of districts in the coming months.

"It's an anomaly because of the missteps by the state Education Department early on. Hopefully, it's a learning experience for State Ed in how it approaches the issue," the NYSUT leader said.

The teachers unions in both Yonkers and Rochester did strike deals for evaluation plans for their low-performing schools. Union leaders there described different situations than those facing Buffalo teachers and cautioned that no plans are in place for the districtwide evaluation in their communities.

Yet Urbanski predicted "all hell breaks loose" in other districts if certain issues are not addressed, such as student absenteeism.

"I don't think anybody sees this being about Phil Rumore, including Phil Rumore," Urbanski said. "This is about fairness. This is about doing right by kids, and right now Phil Rumore and the Buffalo teachers are doing the right thing by kids, and the state Education Department is not."

Urbanski's message to the BTF: "You are earning the respect and admiration of your colleagues statewide for taking a firm stand on behalf of students and their teachers."