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Voter support is shown for BTF on evaluations; Poll also reflects worry on loss of aid

A majority of Buffalo voters support the Buffalo Teachers Federation's stance on student absenteeism as it relates to teacher evaluations -- but when it comes to the district losing money or a major university partner as a result, public opinion veers away from the union, a recent survey has found.

The same survey found voters overwhelmingly unhappy with the School Board.

"It doesn't appear that there are any winners. There only appear to be losers in this thing," said local pollster Barry Zeplowitz, who said he decided to conduct the survey independently, without being paid by any person or group.

Five hundred Buffalo voters, over two days last week, answered questions about the board and the teachers union. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

The majority of poll respondents throughout the city said they agree with the union specifically regarding its opposition to a teacher-evaluation plan that counts all students, regardless of attendance: 51 percent of those polled agreed with the union, and 38 percent disagreed.

"I would think if more people were aware of the extent of the absentee problem, more people would agree with the union on that," BTF President Philip Rumore said.

Rumore signed a recent version of the plan, which did count all students but set different benchmarks for teachers in schools with severe student attendance problems. His signature, though, was contingent on approval by the union's council of delegates, which never voted on that plan.

When voters were asked in the phone poll about the evaluation issue in the context of consequences, more people opposed than supported the union.

Among those surveyed, 37 percent said they have a positive opinion of the union overall, compared with 42 percent who reported a negative opinion. The rest were not sure.

Opposition to the union was strongest in the Delaware District, where nearly twice as many people said they have a negative opinion of the union. The Lovejoy and North districts were the only ones reporting higher positive than negative opinions. Responses were broken down by the nine Common Council districts, which do not directly correlate to the six school districts in the city.

The state has suspended $5.6 million in federal funds because of the lack of a signed, approvable teacher-evaluation plan, and Johns Hopkins University has said that it will no longer be willing to step in next year to run East and Lafayette high schools for the same reason.

"Basically, the public is marginally supportive of the Buffalo Teachers Federation's position on absenteeism, but they go negative on the loss of money as well as the loss of Johns Hopkins' involvement in helping those two high schools," Zeplowitz said.

When asked "if you knew that the BTF opposition to the teacher-evaluation plan could cost the school district $5.6 million in school improvement grants," 41 percent agreed with the union, while 44 percent disagreed.

When asked whether people knew that Johns Hopkins "said it could not plan to begin work in September to aid two Buffalo high schools as long as the months-long effort to reach a teacher-evaluation plan remains at an impasse among the district, the BTF and the state Education Department," 35 percent agreed with the union, while 43 percent did not.

Seventy-eight percent of those polled were aware of the teacher-evaluation issue -- an unusually high level of awareness, Zeplowitz said.

Voter disapproval of the School Board was much stronger than disapproval of the union.

Zeplowitz said he first polled voters about the School Board in 2004 -- and the board consistently gets low marks. This time was no exception.

Fifty percent of voters said they do not approve of the job the School Board is doing, compared with 32 percent who said they approve.

The strongest negative feelings were in the Delaware District, where 67 percent indicated disapproval, versus 19 percent approval; the South District: 58 percent disapproval and 34 percent approval; and the Ellicott District, 53 percent disapproval and 30 percent approval. Jason McCarthy represents most of the Delaware District; Louis J. Petrucci, all of the South District; and Mary Ruth Kapsiak, most of the Central District.

The only area where the board got more people approving than disapproving of its job was in the Masten District, where 40 percent approved and 38 percent disapproved. Most of that district is represented by Sharon Belton-Cottman.