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City teachers vote no on evaluations

A delegation of teachers from the Buffalo Public Schools voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject a proposal for evaluating teacher performance at six troubled schools, and the president of their union vowed to hold the state responsible should it withhold funds to the district.

"We're not giving up," Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said after a nearly three-hour meeting of the union's council of delegates at the Hearthstone Manor in Depew.

"What we're going to do is go to court," Rumore said. "We've identified a couple of parents at affected schools, and we're going to go to court and sue the state and say that the decision in withholding the money from us arbitrary and capricious."

Rumore was referring to $5.6 million in additional funding for schools, which the state will not release without the BTF's approval of a new teacher-evaluation system that has already been approved by the district and a union representing the district's school principals.

"The teachers voted overwhelmingly not to accept the latest document that the district had provided us," Rumore said after the meeting Thursday night. "Basically, what the teachers said is that we voted on this three or four different times, and enough is enough. There's just no trust there anymore."

Rumore said the roughly 150 members of council of delegates also voted overwhelmingly to call on all BTF delegates to walk out of an upcoming New York State United Teachers statewide convention in Buffalo next week when State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. appears.

"We feel that he has been using the students as pawns, holding money and dangling money, just because we can't reach an agreement that we've tried to reach and successfully negotiated with the district three different times," Rumore said. Each time, he said, the state Education Department has sought more changes.

Negotiators for the Education Department, teachers union and the district spoke Thursday before the BTF council's meeting, trying to resolve the months-long dispute.

The latest rejection leaves $5.6 million from Albany at risk, money that would fund improvements at six low-performing schools. Unless the district and union can agree on an evaluation plan for teachers -- and the Education Department signs off on the plan -- department officials have said they will not release the funds.

The fight has major ramifications for existing funding, but also more than $20 million in funding for school improvements grants for next year.

Additionally, all school districts in New York must have teacher-evaluation plans -- judging performance on everything from student grades on standardized tests to classroom observations -- in place by January or risk losing out on state aid increases approved last month in the state budget.

Even before Thursday night's vote, the dispute in Buffalo worsened this week.

Tuesday, Johns Hopkins University said that it will pull out of a program to try to turn around two failing high schools in the district if the teacher-evaluation dispute is not resolved by May 1.

That led to an angry letter by Rumore on Thursday to Charles Hiteshew, head of the Johns Hopkins turnaround program.

The Baltimore-based group is scheduled to begin work at Lafayette and East high schools this fall. But Rumore said that Johns Hopkins is the only turnaround group that has "thrown down the gauntlet" with its threat to leave.

"Is there a message here?" Rumore wrote. Rumore told the Johns Hopkins official that it is the state Education Department, not the district or union, causing the delay in reaching a teacher-evaluation deal.

"Not only do you owe the Buffalo teachers an apology for blaming us for the delays that were not of our making, but you should be ashamed of threatening to withhold services from our students based upon your lack of understanding who is really holding up funding," Rumore wrote. "You, as is the [Education Department], are wrongly using our students as pawns. We would have thought more of Johns Hopkins."

The battle was also causing internal problems between BTF and its parent union, NYSUT. In a letter to NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi, Rumore wrote that he was "shocked" that the statewide union had invited the education commissioner to an annual policy-setting meeting of its delegates next week in Buffalo.

The union gathering will bring more than 2,000 delegates to the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

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