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School aid at standstill as BTF chief blasts state

Buffalo schools Monday seemed no closer to reclaiming $5.6 million in grant money than they did last week, as the head of the teachers union objected to the state's request for additional changes to a teacher-evaluation plan.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said he thought teachers would not look favorably on the most recent version of the plan, given their sense that the state would find a reason to reject whatever is submitted.

That means the school district currently has no signed agreement to submit to the state.

"Each time, the state has come up with something different that was wrong," Rumore said. "There is such anger and frustration -- teachers feel the state is not real with any of this stuff. I don't think there's anything that could be put to the teachers that would be looked upon favorably. There's no trust in the state anymore."

District officials forged ahead with preparations for a hearing with the state this week, when they are to challenge the legality of the state's suspension of the school-improvement grants in January.

"We had further conversations with the state Education Department today, but no communication with the BTF," interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon said Monday. "We are continuing with preparations for Wednesday's hearing in Albany."

Dixon said she received verbal assurances from state Education Department officials last week that they would approve Buffalo's most recent version of the agreement. That agreement, however, requires the union to sign off on it.

The crux of the dispute is over whether, or to what degree, the performance of chronically absent students should be counted when evaluating teachers.

The lastest document included a sentence insisted upon by State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. that was unnecessary and ambiguous, according to Rumore. That sentence refers to 20 points -- out of the 100-point evaluation for fourth- to eighth-grade teachers -- that are based on a locally selected measure of student growth: "The 20 points shall be provided as determined by the commissioner."

"It's open to interpretation as to what that means, and it doesn't need to be in there," Rumore said.

The latest version of the district's teacher-evaluation plan also contained changes to a chart about student progress that he said the union had not agreed to, but probably could be successfully negotiated.

Many teachers fault the state Education Department for the current situation. Buffalo has submitted at least three versions of the teacher-evaluation agreement -- each of which the state has rejected, for various reasons.

"It's really kind of ironic -- isn't it? -- that the district and union have been able to come to agreement on something, and then another party steps in to say, 'Oh, no, it's not going to work?' " school psychologist Mark V. Mecca said. "Finally, the union and the district can hammer out an agreement on something, and it's never acceptable."

The union's council of delegates has met three times in the last few months to vote on various versions of the evaluation agreement. At its most recent such meeting last week, Rumore called off the vote because, just hours before, the state rejected the district's proposal.

Teachers are angry about what seems to be an endless go-round -- some of them angry at Rumore, some angry at the state, and some just angry in general.

"People are frustrated," Mecca said. "It just seems a little ridiculous."

It's unclear exactly how the situation will be resolved.

The state Education Department has already broken its own regulations twice by ignoring deadlines and rescheduling Buffalo's hearing in Albany. By those same regulations, Buffalo's last chance to submit a plan should have been Thursday.

Locally, some School Board members speculate that state officials are trying to avoid holding a hearing because the state's uncertainty about the entire process would then become apparent.

In the meantime, Rumore continues to threaten legal action against the state unless the funds are restored to the district.

Dixon continues to hope for a compromise acceptable to the state and the union.

And Regent Robert M. Bennett continues to push behind the scenes for King to find a solution that would restore the money to the schools.

"No way am I giving up on this money," Bennett said. "That's not going to happen. A court case solves absolutely nothing."