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Puzzling change of heart While welcome, deal with teachers on evaluations raises questions

First, and most important: The tentative agreement between the Buffalo Public School District and the teachers union comes as a welcome and surprising relief. Maybe when the stakes are high enough and the loss great enough, even the Buffalo Teachers Federation can find a way to be reasonable.

Second: What is going on here? Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon and BTF President Philip Rumore agree to some cosmetic changes in a previously rejected plan and, suddenly, all is right with teacher evaluations? Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but something is missing from this formula. That's a puzzle that cries out for solving.

Still, this is an important achievement, especially given that State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has said he would approve the plan if union members sign off on it. Without it, the school district, which is in dire straits — financially and educationally — would have forfeited millions of dollars and the potential to improve the performances of teachers and students alike.

With the agreement, six schools are likely to see $5.6 million in aid restored. The agreement applies only to those schools and only for the current school year. Millions more dollars are at risk if the district and union don't agree on an evaluation agreement for the next school year by July 1, hardly four weeks from today.

Differences between this accord and one that the union's Council of Delegates rejected in late March appear to be minor. The new deal makes an adjustment for teachers in schools with a high percentage of students whose native language is not English, for example.

It also makes an allowance for teachers in high schools where the percentage of students with chronic and severe attendance problems exceeds that of the overall district, though the allowance affects only one portion of the evaluation worth a possible 20 points.

Teachers involved in recent meetings seem generally satisfied with the changes, though they are small enough to wonder what other influences are afoot.

Some suspect that Rumore is angling to support Dixon as the School Board's choice for superintendent, on the theory that he could manipulate the district more easily with her in charge than with either of the other two finalists for the job. Dixon has been criticized for failing to reach an agreement on evaluations with the union. The union's sudden embrace of a marginally changed evaluation agreement undercuts that issue and, according to the theory, boosts Dixon's chances of landing the position and Rumore's of continuing to act as a roadblock to reforms.

Frankly, it's plausible. The BTF has no record of acting on behalf of students or the district or the city as a whole. It is interested in protecting the status quo and its own ability to steer the district. Plainly, it sees some advantage in agreeing now when it refused only a few weeks ago. An interesting side issue is that if teachers approve the agreement, Rumore's claims that he acts at direction of union members, rather than the other way around, would be shredded.

In the end, of course, none of that matters when it comes to adoption of this agreement. The union will make its choices and the School Board will hire the candidate it wants to hire. Whatever the undercurrents may be, the critical matter is that a fair mechanism for evaluating the performance of teachers will be put in place, a crucial stream of dollars will be released to the district and students will see their prospects of a good education increase.

Assuming teachers approve the deal. That vote occurs next week. Stay tuned.