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Panepinto backs Ken-Ton School Board in boycott threat over state tests, teacher evaluations

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board has its most high-profile backer yet in its defiance of the state Education Department and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s education reform agenda.

State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, who represents the Ken-Ton district, rushed to the board’s defense Friday, a day after the board was threatened with removal from office by state education officials if it goes ahead with a boycott of standardized testing and teacher evaluations.

“It is extremely concerning that a group of public servants advocating solely on behalf of those they represent are being threatened for doing what they were elected to do – stand up for the people they serve,” Panepinto wrote in a letter to Cuomo and Elizabeth R. Berlin, the state’s acting commissioner of education.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to “seriously consider” refusing to administer the required state assessments and refusing to use such assessments in annual professional performance reviews of teachers.

The board is demanding an end to the use of testing data as part of teacher evaluations and the creation of “one fair, equitable, and efficient teacher and administrator evaluation system.” It also wants the release of state aid information by Cuomo, creation of “a fair and equitable state aid funding formula” and an end to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which has led to a loss of nearly $40 million in state aid to Ken-Ton over five years.

Board President Bob Dana, who initiated the proposals, said Sunday that he was thrilled by Panepinto’s support and that “it reinforces our beliefs.”

“It was very gratifying to have someone of that caliber indicate their support in a way that was just unbelievable,” Dana said. “It couldn’t have been any better.”

The freshman senator, in an interview with The Buffalo News earlier this month, lashed out at Cuomo’s education proposals, such as strengthening teacher evaluations and seeking to link them to increases in state aid.

Panepinto said the governor’s “personal animosity” toward the New York State United Teachers union, which did not support his re-election bid, is partly driving Cuomo’s education policies. Panepinto did not have Cuomo’s support in his Senate race last fall, in which he ousted then-Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, an ally of Cuomo’s. NYSUT gave substantial help to Panepinto in his fall primary and the general election.

Dana said he wasn’t surprised to receive Panepinto’s backing.

“But it did come as a surprise – and a very pleasant surprise – that he did it with both feet,” Dana said. “I can’t think of anything that he could have written that would have been any better. He just really stood up for what we were trying to do. I’d like to think it wasn’t political.”

Panepinto’s letter begins with his “deep concern with the aggressive actions” of the Governor’s Office and state education officials. But, by the end, he strikes a more conciliatory tone.

“We need to find common ground and end the threatening tone that has taken the place of constructive dialogue,” Panepinto wrote. “Let’s start there, and begin to work with the taxpayers, families, and teachers of Western New York and across the state, to achieve meaningful consensus over the future of public education for our children.”