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Teacher-evaluation dispute takes Albany spotlight

ALBANY – State funding for schools took center stage Wednesday at the Capitol, as officials battled over whether it should be linked to a change in evaluating teachers.

Officials negotiated about creating a commission of experts to revise the state’s teacher-evaluation process by June.

Until then, the amount of aid coming from Albany could remain a mystery, and districts would have to put budgets before voters in May uncertain about how much state aid they will receive.

School district officials said that such a prospect would create fiscal headaches for districts. “I hope this is a red herring. … We’re hoping cooler heads prevail,” said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

While the Assembly would not rule out such a delay on school aid, a top Senate Republican dismissed the proposal as unworkable. But the Cuomo administration insisted that the governor is serious about his threat to limit any school funding increase unless teacher evaluations are addressed.

Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-East Northport, influential chairman of the Senate Education Committee, dismissed talk Wednesday that a decision on school aid will be delayed until June.

“I don’t envision any circumstance where we’d leave here without a school aid run and school aid numbers,” he said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has insisted that he will not approve a “significant” aid increase for schools unless the teacher-evaluation system, which he has said is skewed in favor of teachers, is overhauled. He has sought to put more emphasis on student standardized test results – 50 percent – in the annual evaluation of classroom teachers.

Earlier Wednesday, Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine T. Nolan, D-Queens, told reporters she could not rule out a delay in school aid decisions if a panel is named and its work is not ready until June. She noted that districts, during years of especially late state budget adoptions, had to wait longer than that before finding out their state aid figure.

Nolan said that with so many lawmakers offering ideas on teacher evaluations, perhaps an expert panel “may be a way to get us forward.”

While she said that it is a “serious step” for lawmakers to delegate such decisions to an group, the idea is “certainly a way to have a little time to look at it without the heat of the budget.”

Flanagan agreed a commission is a possible outcome but said he wanted to make it “really blunt and clear” that the issue not be linked to a decision on school aid. He said schools are already confused over how to craft their budgets because Cuomo, in a route not taken by governors in recent history, did not release proposed school aid figures when he proposed his budget in January. Those figures traditionally have provided districts a basis to plan their budgets because they know that the Legislature never reduces the aid numbers proposed by a governor.

Flanagan said the Senate’s top school financing goal is getting rid of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, derided by schools as a budget-balancing gimmick from 2010 in which the state takes back aid from districts.

He said the state has a “fiduciary responsibility” to provide schools with state aid numbers at the time that the state budget is adopted.

Flanagan said that there are “healthy discussions” underway regarding formation of a commission to evaluate teachers and deal with the complex issue of how to rate their job performance. “Our (Senate GOP) members are gravely concerned about testing, overtesting, how that affects parents, how that affects students and certainly how it affects teachers,” Flanagan said.

He said the 50 percent level that Cuomo wants for student test scores in evaluation of a teacher performance is being met with a “high level of discomfort” in the GOP-led Senate.

Officials have until Tuesday night to pass a budget for it to be considered on-time for the April 1 fiscal year start.

Karen E. Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers union, which has an army of lobbyists fighting Cuomo’s teacher-evaluation plan, said her members could be open to a study commission. But, she said, the commission must include “stakeholders,” whom she defined as teachers, superintendents, board of education members and members of the state Board of Regents. She also said the union does not want any such panel’s recommendations to be binding. Rather, she said, they should be approved by lawmakers.

That NYSUT in any way signaled openness to a commission seriously erodes the prospects of it happening with Cuomo. The governor and NYSUT for years have been at war over a host of matters.

Kremer said the continuing fight between Cuomo and the teachers union is not helping. He put the onus on Cuomo. The governor needs to “rise above this personal vendetta and do what’s right as governor of the State of New York,” Kremer said. “Don’t let this be personal.”

In addition to the education issues, a budget deal also is being held up by a dispute between Cuomo and Senate Republicans over how to expand the state’s ethics laws.

Among the provisions the governor wants is public disclosure of clients by legislators who have outside law practices; Senate Republicans want client-confidentiality provisions.