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Door to aid reopens as teachers OK plan; $5.6 million blocked by state will be restored to schools as dispute over evaluations is settled

Buffalo teachers Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a teacher-evaluation plan for six schools in 2011-12, meaning that $5.6 million in aid will be restored to those schools.

Nearly three-fourths of those voting were in favor of the agreement.

"It's an overwhelming vote of confidence in the agreement," Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said. "It's really gratifying."

Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon praised the teachers' vote, saying it boded well for efforts to reach an evaluation agreement for 2012-13. The district has until July 1 to do so, or else it will once again jeopardize millions in federal funds for several low-performing schools.

"I believe that this collaborative effort will help as we look to secure new teacher and administrator evaluation processes with the [unions] for the 2012-2013 school year," Dixon said.

Because the plan has been approved, $5.6 million will be restored immediately to six low-performing schools. In January, after State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. announced that the grant money had been suspended because of inadequacies with the teacher-evaluation agreement, district officials suspended some programs in those schools to save money.

After-school tutoring funded by the grant was cut at Bennett, Burgard, Riverside and South Park high schools.

At those schools, as well as at International School 45 and Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute, permanent substitute teachers were lost for the rest of the school year. Each school had three subs regularly assigned to it, so that students had continuity when their classroom teachers attended training or spent time planning together.

And all six schools had their grant-funded supplies frozen since January.

Leaders of the district's parent group applauded the evaluation agreement but said that if it had been reached sooner, students would not have suffered negative consequences caused by the suspension of grant funds.

"Tutoring time that was lost has been lost. You can't make up for it," said Kim Walek, secretary of the District Parent Coordinating Council. "Supports were identified to help students for a reason. They were seen as necessary and critical."

Staff in some of the six schools said in interviews that they believe the loss of services halfway through the year will hurt student performance on this year's state tests and could even affect graduation rates.

District spokeswoman Elena Cala said officials did not know the dollar amount of the programs that had been suspended since January.

"Absent additional guidance from [the state Education Department] on both what and how long we have to spend the funds, I am really not comfortable with or able to estimate the final expenditures for the grant," said Chief Financial Officer Barbara J. Smith.

That money, as part of the school-improvement grant, is supposed to be spent by June 30. Last week, Associate Superintendent Debra S. Sykes told the Board of Education that the money could be spent on academic support services at those schools through the end of August.

State Education Department spokesman Thomas Dunn said the district can request to carry over a portion of the funds that had been suspended, but the money must be used "to support activities that are consistent with activities that were approved in the grant."

"At this time, [the state] is allowing [the district] the ability to carry over funds to support summer activities only," he said. "When [the district] has an approved [teacher-evaluation] agreement for 2012-13, the district may apply to carry over the remaining funds into the 2012-13 school year."

Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, noted that in March, after threatening to lay off dozens of teachers at the six schools if the union did not approve the evaluation agreement, district officials used reserve funds to pay those salaries through the end of the school year.

"But we didn't do it for the students who needed the tutoring services, and we're not going to be able to go back and undo that," he said.

The evaluation plan that teachers approved Tuesday largely mirrored the one they had rejected in March. The biggest difference was a provision that added 2 points onto the evaluation of any teacher in a school where 20 percent or more of students were not native English speakers.

The agreement also extended an attendance provision to include the elementary schools; previously, it applied only to the high schools.

Many teachers said they were not entirely pleased with the agreement, saying they did not trust the state assessments, which will now be used as a partial measure of teachers' effectiveness.

An air of almost grudging acceptance seemed to usher in the approval.

"It's not the best document, but I think it's the best we could get right now," said Jodi Hammond, a fifth-grade teacher at Frank A. Sedita Academy. "I think it's a pretty good compromise on everybody's part."

Despite allowances for schools with excessive student absenteeism, many teachers said they still were not entirely comfortable with the agreement. Some noted that suspended students are technically not considered absent by the district and the state, and said they thought that was unfair.

The agreement won support from a majority of teachers at most of the six low-performing schools.

At Riverside, though, it was defeated almost 2-to-1.

"Teachers felt the [grant] money was not spent on dealing with the real issues at the school," said Marc Bruno, a union representative at the school. Teachers also were upset that they "were being given the rules for how we would be evaluated at the end of the school year instead of the beginning."

While teachers have voted on previous versions of the agreement, this is the first time that a direct vote of teachers in the buildings has been the deciding factor. Past votes of the teachers were then translated into a vote of the union's 200-member council of delegates.

Voter turnout in the schools for this vote was rather low. Across the district, a little more than one-third of the teachers voted.

Many teachers said they were simply tired of voting.

Rumore said that 1,192 teachers voted in favor of the agreement; 303 voted against it; and 133 abstained. Six schools have not yet reported their results. There are about 3,500 teachers in the district.

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com