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Regents role in evaluating teachers is focus as school aid is ‘delinked’ in Albany

ALBANY – State officials are discussing a plan to have the state Board of Regents redo job-performance evaluations for public school teachers, instead of an outside commission, and lawmakers insist the issue of teacher evaluations will not delay answers on how much state aid schools will be getting from Albany.

Lawmakers say they believe that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is dropping his insistence on linking the policy changes to state aid for schools but that he now wants, as a trade, for lawmakers to go along with stalled efforts to provide a tax credit to help private and religious schools and to provide state college aid for children of illegal immigrants.

Cuomo, who has largely avoided the media during budget talks, issued a statement Thursday saying that he would not approve a “dramatic” increase in education aid unless issues involving teacher evaluations and steps to deal with failing schools are in the budget. He did not specifically define “dramatic” or what he is willing to accept in the way of policy changes.

Officials first considered appointing a panel of outside experts to recommend how to improve teacher evaluations. Critics say Cuomo’s plan puts too much emphasis on standardized test scores by students.

But officials involved in the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of those talks, said a new effort intensified Thursday to have the Board of Regents devise changes to the teacher-evaluation system – with specific input from Cuomo and lawmakers in language to be contained in the budget.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, said that no decisions had been made on the topic.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John J. Flanagan, R-East Northport, said turning to the Board of Regents is a possibility. “They do set educational policy,” he said, adding that discussions are continuing about not only who should devise changes to the evaluations, but how teachers are rated based on considerations such as how many disabled and English language learners they teach and the level of poverty in a school.

As for linking state school aid to the policies Cuomo wants achieved in the budget, Flanagan said, “Funding is absolutely delinked.”

But at what level is also a key. Cuomo has dangled a sizable aid increase to schools, though considerably less than lawmakers, in return for educational policy changes. No changes, no big aid increase, he insisted again Thursday. Cuomo’s policy and funding ideas were met with pushback from several hundred demonstrators from the New York State United Teachers union who descended on the Capitol late Thursday afternoon.

One budget bill is out of the way: debt service. Legislation involving state borrowing almost always sails through as one of the first budget bills, and the Senate passed the measure Wednesday followed by the Assembly on Thursday. The state’s debt load will rise to $55 billion in the coming year, up by $2.5 billion over the current fiscal year that ends Tuesday. The amount that New York taxpayers this year will pay servicing the state’s debt is $6.1 billion. The total budget will reach about $150 billion.

Many issues remain to be resolved by Wednesday’s budget deadline.

On the minimum wage, a new, reduced proposal is under consideration: raising the minimum wage, which is set to rise early next year to $9 per hour, to $9.50. But Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, said that any discussions on the minimum wage need to also include ways to help businesses cut costs through reduced state regulations and changes to the workers compensation system.

Officials are still trying to determine how to earmark $6 billion in proceds from a legal settlement windfall. For weeks, Cuomo and lawmakers have been at odds on that issue, and Skelos said he does not want to “rush into it” until a specific plan is developed to spend the money on economic development and infrastructure projects that will create jobs around the state.

The Albany mantra – nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to – was a constant refrain Thursday. While there are tentative deals on everything from changes to a program to restore abandoned industrial sites to restoring cuts Cuomo eyed for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, no one was ready to announce anything just yet.