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Johns Hopkins cancels offer of turnaround aid Cites delay caused by teacher-evaluation fight; says it may give Buffalo schools other help

A school-performance turnaround group Tuesday ended its plan to assist two troubled Buffalo high schools beginning in the fall because of the still-unresolved dispute over a teacher-evaluation system.

Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization declined a request by the district to delay for a month its threatened pullout of an agreement to improve student achievement at Lafayette and East high schools.

The Baltimore-based group said it could not plan to begin work in September so long as the months-long efforts to reach a teacher-evaluation plan remain at an impasse among the district, the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the state Education Department.

Charles Hiteshew, the head of the Johns Hopkins program, said the university's hands were tied, though in an email response to questions he said that he assigned no blame to the state Education Department, the BTF or the district. To be held responsible for the outcomes of the two high schools when no signed deals were in place by Tuesday "would not allow us to provide the comprehensive preparation, support and service that our students and schools deserve," he said.

Hiteshew said Johns Hopkins is still interested in helping to improve the two high schools and three other schools in the district. "Short of that, we are open to using the coming school year as a planning year or implementing pieces of our model if and when there are resources to support our efforts," he said Tuesday night.

Interim Buffalo School Superintendent Amber Dixon said Tuesday she had asked Johns Hopkins a day earlier to delay action until June 1 to provide more time for a deal on teacher evaluations. .

"I understand their need to draw a line," Dixon said in an interview. "On the other hand, I appreciate their willingness to try to work out some other formal partnership or a planning year."

The Johns Hopkins departure comes as the parties here remain apart on crafting a teacher-evaluation system for six low-performing schools in the district. At risk is more than $5.6 million in state aid for the program, which is contingent upon a teacher-evaluation system being in place.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this week reiterated that the Buffalo schools risk losing millions of dollars in additional state aid payments if the district and union do not make a deal on teacher evaluation for all city schools by the middle of next January.

BTF President Philip Rumore could not be reached to comment Tuesday, but two weeks ago he lashed out at the threat by Johns Hopkins and said the university owed Buffalo teachers an apology "for blaming us for the delays that were not of our making."

But Dixon said she is encouraged Johns Hopkins did not rule out helping the Buffalo district, possibly even in the upcoming school year.

The interim superintendent said talks still are continuing over teacher evaluations -- a matter that brought Dixon to Albany last week to make a formal, public appeal to let the funding flow even without a final deal with the union.

"I'm not willing to give up until the state says those funds are no longer in reach," she said.

The BTF has threatened to sue the Education Department if the funding is rejected.

In part because of the lack of a teacher-evaluation plan, state education officials had not formally approved the involvement of Johns Hopkins in turnaround plans at Lafayette and East high schools.

Seeking to put pressure on Buffalo teachers and district officials, State Education Commissioner John King floated the idea that the state Board of Regents could act to close underperforming schools in Buffalo if no teacher-evaluation deal is reached.

While no final decision has been made about the $5.6 million funding for the six schools, King made clear what the upcoming ruling is likely to be.

"The core requirement was that an evaluation system be in place, and Buffalo has not been able to do that so far," he said.

As the disagreement, which began late last year, drags on, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, recently said she favored the state taking over the district if a teacher-evaluation system is not devised for the district.

King this week noted the Regents have advanced a legislative proposal giving the education policy-setting panel authority to install an oversight board to deal with "sustained" poor student or fiscal performance by schools in the state.

"The idea behind the bill is if the district can't serve the interests of its students, there ought to be significant intervention to ensure students' interests are protected," King said.

Asked if Buffalo was at that point, he said, "If they're not able to move forward on a teacher-evaluation system and not able to move forward to improve its lowest-performing schools, I think everyone would have to seriously answer that question."

But is there specific talk by the Regents or Education Department officials of a full or partial takeover of the Buffalo schools?

"Not to date," King said.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com