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Teachers have pressed for replacement of Bennett since 2013

The first public sign that teachers would press to replace Robert M. Bennett on the state’s Board of Regents happened on a cold December afternoon in 2013.

About two dozen teachers gathered on the sidewalk outside of Bennett’s Town of Tonawanda home. Their displeasure with Bennett, a four-term regent and the state’s chancellor emeritus, was unmistakable.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Emeritus Bennett has got to go,” chanted the group, led by Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, as they marched back and forth.

The union-led picket outside the home of a state regent was unusual and was one of a series of increasingly loud protests by teachers and parents during the last year and a half against the decisions made by the state’s education policymakers.

Months of public outcry and displeasure with the state’s education reforms have taken their toll on the Board of Regents. On Tuesday, Assembly Democrats will usher in four new members to the 17-member board and replace Bennett and one other longtime regent, James Dawson. Three other incumbent regents – Kathleen Cashin, Roger Tilles and Lester Young – will hold on to their seats on the state’s top education decision-making board, a source close to Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie told The News.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation did not make a formal endorsement for the seat held by Bennett for the last 20 years. But Rumore made it clear to local Democratic lawmakers that the teachers were not on board with returning Bennett to Albany.

“We felt that he has not really been in tune with what’s really important in education,” Rumore said Monday, a day after Bennett announced he would step out of the running for the region’s seat on the Board of Regents after Heastie recommended Buffalo educator Catherine Fisher Collins.

Regionally, teachers have been rallying against a series of education reforms implemented by the Board of Regents, including the use of student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. While state legislators wrote the law requiring the teacher evaluations, the Board of Regents is tasked with implementing those evaluations and other statewide education policies. It is the Board of Regents that sought a federal Race to the Top grant and agreed to adopt the controversial Common Core Learning Standards.

Bennett in recent weeks had publicly opposed a plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to increase the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluations, but his strong support for former Education Commissioner John King Jr. and the controversial learning standards was a flash point for many area educators. His support for charter schools and the state Education Department’s focus on Buffalo Public Schools has also not sat well with Buffalo teachers.

“Until the Board of Regents realizes that it’s not a question of fixing the teachers, but it’s a question of fixing the conditions under which our teachers teach and our students learn, they’re just looking for scapegoats to cover up their own inadequacies that they really have done nothing,” Rumore said.

Aside from Collins, the three other new members of the Board of Regents expected to be approved by the Legislature on Tuesday are Beverly L. Ouderkirk, Judith Johnson and Judith Chin, the source close to Heastie said.

Public school teachers across the state have long had strong influence in statewide politics. They are represented by one of the state’s largest unions, New York State United Teachers, which has an influential political fundraising arm. Locally, NYSUT spent $826,000 in the last election cycle to help elect Democratic State Sen. Marc Panepinto to replace Mark Grisanti. Panepinto also did not support reappointing Bennett.

An Assembly source said Monday that NYSUT made it clear to lawmakers that its focus was ousting Bennett from his seat. While the union had lobbied for former Buffalo School Board Member John Licata to replace Bennett, it did not oppose the recommendation of Collins.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said teachers statewide are looking for Board of Regents members willing to “advocate for the resources and policies that support public education and to not automatically jump the first time someone uses the word ‘reform.’ ”

“We need regents who are going to look critically at the issues, to listen carefully to the concerns of students, parents and teachers and to advocate for what all kids need,” Korn said.

Teachers across the state in recent weeks have held public rallies to call for more funding for public education and to express opposition to an education reform package pushed by Cuomo, including increasing the use of students’ state test scores in teacher evaluations, increasing the number of charter schools and allowing for the takeover of failing schools. He has tied increasing state aid for schools to the passage of his reforms by the State Legislature.

While the State Legislature will vote Tuesday on filling the seven seats on the Board of Regents, lawmakers will continue to debate Cuomo’s education proposals in the coming weeks.

Todd Hathaway, an East Aurora teacher who helped organize a large rally last month in West Seneca against Cuomo’s proposals, said it’s those types of issues that tend to galvanize most teachers, rather than the individual politics of the Board of Regents.

“We’re an issue organization,” Hathaway said. “We’re not much a personality organization.”

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report. email: djgee@buffnews.com