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Hopkins group gives turnaround ultimatum May 1 pullout deadline set in city school dispute

An internationally acclaimed school turnaround group is threatening to pull out of efforts to assist two troubled Buffalo high schools because of an unresolved dispute involving the district, the teachers union and state officials over a new system to evaluate teacher performance.

Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools says that it will back out of plans to begin efforts to improve student achievement at Lafayette and East high schools this September if the months-old teacher-evaluation battle is not resolved by May 1.

The threat is a potentially serious symbolic blow to the city's school-turnaround efforts, as well as to student improvements at the two high schools.

It comes as state officials have, for the first time, provided a written road map to the district and teachers union to reach a state-sanctioned teacher-evaluation system for six other low-achieving schools. That dispute has $5.6 million in school-improvement funds hanging in the balance.

"My fear is that this district is going to start bearing the brunt of this failure by the teachers union -- to sign a memorandum of understanding with the district about teacher evaluations," Amber M. Dixon, interim superintendent for the Buffalo Public Schools, said of the warning from Johns Hopkins.

Although the two high schools that Johns Hopkins is supposed to start working with are not immediately affected by the teacher-evaluation dispute, the new warning shows that the continuing fight involving the state Education Department, the school district and the teachers union is risking collateral damage to students.

Johns Hopkins said that the teacher-evaluation dispute is holding up approvals for its turnaround plans and that, unless the dispute is resolved quickly, it cannot plan its operations in time for the start of the new school year in September.

School district officials and the Buffalo Teachers Federation have been upset over changes the state Education Department made in recent months for a new teacher-evaluation system at six schools in the district.

But in a recent letter to Dixon, Anita Murphy, an associate commissioner at the Education Department, detailed five specific provisions the state wants included in any evaluation plan the district submits to the state before the stalled money would flow.

Murphy said the state wants to ensure that a deal between the district and union includes aligning one of the scoring scales with state guidelines; deleting a confusing reference to a state-determined measure of teacher effectiveness; and correcting what appears to be a typographical error, where the word "absenteeism" should be used instead of "absence."

The district also was asked to more clearly articulate how expectations for students' educational growth will be adjusted for teachers in schools with severe absenteeism, as well as to provide a more detailed explanation of how many points principals will get for particular elements of evaluation.

In underlined, boldface wording for emphasis, Murphy said that the final teacher-evaluation submission by the city must be "identical" to the language she submitted and that any changes "could result in your submission being deemed unacceptable."

Dixon said she has presented a new memorandum of understanding to the BTF with those new state-ordered provisions.

But BTF President Philip Rumore said teachers do not trust the Education Department because they have already seen three previous teacher-evaluation agreements pushed aside -- in at least in one case, for reasons never before raised by the state.

The BTF is planning to sue the state over the lost funds for the six schools, Rumore said.

Rumore said the union is concerned over language in Dixon's new memorandum that he said could disproportionately harm high school students. However, he said he believed that this dispute could be worked out.

But what can't be resolved now, Rumore said, is the mistrust the union has for the Education Department. "The teachers have gone through this and feel the commissioner and state Education Department are toying with them and constantly putting up new hurdles. That is a major problem," he said.

The BTF said the letter from Murphy to Dixon contains a sizable, single poison pill word: "appears." Murphy said that if her edict is followed exactly in a final teacher-evaluation plan, it "appears such submissions would address all aspects" sought by the Education Department.

"It, once again, shows us they really are prepared to find something else wrong," Rumore said of a process that already has had him ask union members to approve an evaluation plan three times since late last year.

The union's ruling council of delegates is set to meet Thursday, Rumore said, but he is asking that the council not act unless, at the very least, the district changes one or more provisions in its most recent proposal.

State officials said Tuesday that there is no current deadline for the district to act on a new evaluation plan because, they noted, it already missed a Dec. 31 deadline for the $5.6 million. The Education Department, officials said, already has approved several postponements of an appeals process by the district in order to give officials in Buffalo time to resolve the dispute with the BTF.

The back-and-forth over Buffalo's teacher-evaluation system for just six low-performing schools is being watched around the state because it comes at a time when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators are demanding that schools statewide devise new evaluation systems for teachers and principals according to specific state criteria approved earlier this year.

If individual districts do not have a plan adopted by next January, Cuomo has said, they will not get an expected 4 percent increase in state aid.

The threat by Johns Hopkins was being taken seriously by both the BTF and the district -- though Rumore said the Baltimore-based university turnaround entity's complaint should be with the Education Department.

Johns Hopkins was selected by the district to help improve Lafayette and East high schools as part of an overall plan that the city hopes will result in $42 million in federal turnaround funding over the next three years. The plan still needs state approval.

In an April 13 letter to Dixon, Charles Hiteshew, CEO of the Johns Hopkins education group, said his organization has been "anxiously awaiting" a resolution of the teacher-evaluation dispute involving the state, the district and the union.

Without an evaluation deal for the six already identified low-performing schools, Hiteshew said, funding and plans to deal with all other school-improvement plans also are stalled. As a result, he said, the group's need for "substantive work" at the two high schools, slated to begin this fall, is also on hold.

Hiteshew said failure to achieve a teacher-evaluation deal by May 1 would force Johns Hopkins to "forgo the opportunity to serve these schools" this year. He said the university-based group needs adequate time to work out schedules, curriculums, staffing and other concerns for its improvement models for the two high schools.

"Without timely resolution, none of these things can happen in a time frame that will allow us to open strong in the fall with fully trained and prepared transformation staff," Hiteshew wrote. He said an alternative plan could be to wait for another year to start the program at the two high schools.

But Dixon said the city can't afford to wait another year.

"If they walk away from us, we will have two schools with, once again, no [turnaround] plan," she said.

Dixon said she has urged Rumore to sign off on a final deal that she said the Education Department has all but acknowledged that it will embrace. She noted that the state "finally" gave something to the district and the union -- specificity -- that they have been seeking for months to craft a final teacher-evaluation deal.

"The ramifications are huge," she said of failure to get the issue resolved quickly.

But Rumore said the teachers are feeling burned by Albany officials.

"The teachers are frustrated," he said. "They don't want to have to deal with this anymore, because they feel the state is just playing games with them and nothing will pass muster."