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Parent protest on stalemate reaches BTF headquarters

Several dozen parents and community activists protested at Buffalo Teachers Federation headquarters on Porter Avenue on Monday evening, calling for the union president to sign a teacher-evaluation agreement by 5 p.m. today -- or for the state to extend that deadline.

Both appear unlikely to happen.

District officials late Monday seemed resigned to losing millions in federal funds as a result.

"At this point in time, I don't see any hope of us getting the $5.6 million without [BTF President Philip Rumore] signing the document by 5 o'clock," interim School Superintendent Amber M. Dixon said Monday night.

Rumore invited about 40 protesters to come in from the cold rain Monday evening during a demonstration that started outside union headquarters.

In the end, neither he nor they completely warmed up to each other.

For the second time in about as many weeks, the protesters -- made up of parents and community leaders -- gathered at the union headquarters in hopes of persuading the union to sign the latest teacher-evaluation document already approved by Buffalo Public Schools officials and a union representing its administrators.

Several speakers among those gathered outside Monday evening made the case for Rumore to sign the document so the state would release funding for six persistently low-achieving schools in the district. The protesters marched to the side of the building, where they were met by Rumore.

"Let me just say, I wish you would have come in sooner," Rumore said as he invited the group into a conference room.

Once inside, Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, the protest organizer, thanked Rumore for the invitation and stated the group's goal: "To do what's best for our children."

"Without the teachers' help right now, our children cannot move forward," Radford said. "Resources will not come to this district to turn around persistently low-achieving schools. So we're here to ask for the committment of the Buffalo Teachers Federation to go to the table with the state Education Department and stay at the table until we come up with a solution that works for children."

Rumore, in response, insisted that it wasn't that easy. He cited concerns that the council of delegates, representing teachers in each of the district's school buildings, expressed about the proposal during a meeting Thursday.

"We have concerns about English language learners, for example, and how teachers are judged on [student performance] on standardized tests," Rumore said.

He said teachers have always been committed to working with the district.

Rumore noted that the BTF had authorized him to sign three previous teacher-evaluation proposals, only to have them rejected by the state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.

"At this point right now, the teachers are concerned that there's nothing that we can do that will be approved [by King]," Rumore said.

"The major concerns are student absenteeism. When you have 35 percent of our high school students who are absent over seven weeks, that's a concern for the high school teachers. [They reason], 'How am I going to be judged on a student test score when that student is absent over seven weeks?' "

Radford noted that none of the adult parties in the dispute will be penalized for the misunderstandings and disputes among them but that the district's students will suffer.

"What can we do to protect our children right now?" Radford asked.

Rumore said, "Right now, what you can do is tell the commissioner to stop using [students] as hostages by withholding money from the students. If he wants to penalize me, fine. If he wants to sanction the district in other ways, fine. But tell him to stop using our students as pawns," Rumore said.

Radford said the parties involved had two years to agree on an evaluation process. Rumore then noted that there were legal disputes surrounding language in the proposed teacher-evaluation agreement, as well as the fact that teachers were still working without a new contract.

Rumore was asked by Radford to go back to the BTF's delegates and ask them to reconsider their vote. The BTF chief said he was unwilling "because they'll vote it down again."

After that, the conversation was pretty much over.

"The [BTF] only represents teachers," Radford told the protesters once they filed back outside.

He then called for parents gather at the Buffalo School Board meeting Wednesday and "make it clear to the [board] that we intend to stop business as usual."

State Education Department officials have said they would approve Buffalo's principal- and teacher-evaluation agreements, as long as a few specific changes -- and none others -- were made.

The BTF council of delegates voted overwhelmingly last week not to approve the agreement on teacher evaluations.

Rumore said Monday that King should restore the funding to the Buffalo Public Schools immediately and give the district and the union until August or September to reach an agreement. Nearly a year ago, district and union officials signed a letter as part of a federal grant application agreeing to have teacher evaluations in place at six grant-funded schools by last Dec. 31.

"I'm saying he should free up the funding for this year," Rumore said.

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