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Dire consequences; BTF refusal to accept evaluation plan puts tens of millions of dollars at risk

A recent independent survey of residents of the Buffalo School District showed that most are supportive to a point -- of the teachers union in its standoff with the state over teacher evaluations. The results weren't surprising, even if there are good answers to the respondents' concerns about some issues.

The good news, though, is that when respondents also understand the consequences of the union's position, they take a more jaundiced view of the situation. Those consequences are already playing out, and they are severe.

Not that it matters to the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Protected by its contract and union-friendly state labor law, the union has shown itself willing to ignore all pleas to treat this matter like the reasonable and powerful opportunity that it is.

The stumbling block is over the role that chronically absent students play in teacher evaluations. The state, plausibly, insists that all students be counted and, as News columnist Rod Watson recently pointed out, Buffalo schools have already demonstrated that teachers play an important role in improving attendance rates.

That may seem counter-intuitive to those who answered the poll, conducted without sponsorship by local pollster Barry Zeplowitz, but the fact is that teachers are critical to this question. They are not bystanders. Indeed, to suggest that they are is an insult to teachers' professionalism and creativity.

The BTF will have none of that. It has refused to approve a teacher evaluation deal that the state will accept and, as a result, a renowned organization that had planned to help turn around two of Buffalo's most troubled schools -- Lafayette and East high schools -- has backed off.

The Center for Social Organization at Johns Hopkins University said it couldn't plan for its involvement in the schools -- which had been scheduled to begin this September -- if the dispute went unresolved. It gave a deadline and, when it passed, so did Johns Hopkins.

That's just the start of the troubles. The state says it will also withhold federal turnaround money that depended on reaching an agreement on teacher evaluations. The parameters of that agreement were hammered out last year by the state and New York State United Teachers, and other urban districts have already signed on. But not Buffalo. The BTF, true to its stripes, won't have anything to do with it and even plans -- predictably -- to sue. The lawyers must love these guys.

And that's not all. Increases in state aid to education are also contingent on securing agreements on teacher evaluations. Unless a deal is struck by January, the district could lose a 4 percent increase. All in all, the district could forfeit $57 million next year. That's money that no district can afford to pass up, let alone one already facing a $42 million budget deficit.

We called last month for the state to take over the Buffalo schools. We aren't sure how a takeover would play out as it moves through the State Legislature, but we are sure that the status quo is hurting the city's children, and the city itself. Something has to change the dynamic.

In the end, this is about obstinacy. Teachers influence absenteeism rates. Evaluations, therefore, should include the performances of chronically absent students in a balanced and fair way. The proposed evaluation system does that. But all of that falls on deaf ears at the BTF. It's a $57 million catastrophe.