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Backlash swift on threat to school aid

An official memo arrived at the desks of school superintendents, telling them they had two summer months to reach a deal with unions on teacher evaluations in order to get state approval by a Nov. 15 deadline.

If not, they risked losing state aid.

The memo sent Wednesday told superintendents what they already knew. A recently passed state law provided them a narrow window to rework how the teacher and principal reviews are done once the final regulations are in place.

But the backlash from school administrators was swift.

By Wednesday evening, Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch had sent an email to reporters calling for a year extension for districts facing hardship meeting what she described as an “unrealistic deadline” set by the new state law.

“I’m worried about the fiscal implications for districts that can’t meet that deadline,” Tisch said in a statement sent to reporters Wednesday night. “Students should not be denied resources because of adult disagreements.”

Tisch said she was responding to concerns from administrators, teachers and school boards about the “very tight time frame” to negotiate the details of a new teacher evaluation plan.

A spokesman for the state Education Department said that the “swift and forceful” response to the memo sent earlier in the day by Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner detailing the deadline played a part in Tisch’s decision to call for an extension.

“In response to all of this feedback, the chancellor decided not to sacrifice quality for expediency,” Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said. “It’s better for districts to take the time to craft well-thought-out plans than to rush to meet an unrealistic deadline.”

A new teacher-evaluation system created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature requires school districts to reach agreements with unions for teachers and principals over how they will conduct the professional reviews and receive approval from the Education Department by Nov. 15 or risk losing state aid. Wagner’s memo told district administrators that they would need to reach those agreements by Sept. 1 in order to get the state’s approval in time.

That could pose significant financial problems for districts that fail to reach an agreement. The Education Department doesn’t have to finalize the regulations for the new teacher-evaluation system until the end of June.

Tisch said she would direct the staff in the Education Department to find an administrative way to push back the deadline for school districts that face a hardship. She also directed the staff to meet with officials from the Governor’s Office and the Legislature to find a “solution consistent with the intent of the law.”

But Cuomo’s office did not appear to be backing down on the deadline for most school districts.

“The law is clear that the additional state funding is linked to a teacher evaluation system, just like last year,” Alphonso B. David, counsel to the governor, said in a statement to reporters. “The state Education Department and Chancellor Tisch should do their job properly and competently and enact the regulations governing the process by the end of June as prescribed by the law.”

David said the law allows State Ed to provide a hardship exemption procedure for school districts only “if the hardship is genuine and due to a particular circumstance.”

“That is the exception, not the rule,” David said.

Tisch’s call for a deadline extension came only a few hours after an official memo from the Education Department to superintendents reiterated that school districts would have to negotiate their teacher-evaluation plans by Sept. 1 in time to receive approval by Nov. 15 and receive increases in state aid.

Tisch’s proposal appeared to gain support from some Democrats in the Assembly and the State Senate.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, and Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan, D-Queens, chairwoman of the Assembly’s Education Committee, called Tisch’s plan for a deadline extension for districts that face a hardship “the right one.”

State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, who was elected in November with union support from New York State United Teachers, said an extension only for districts facing hardships did not go far enough. In a letter sent to Tisch, Panepinto asked the Board of Regents to create a two-year moratorium on the creation of a new evaluation system until it could be further studied.

Concern over creating the new evaluation system comes as thousands of children across the state have refused to take state exams in math, reading and writing that are used to evaluate teachers, as well as to assess the progress of schools and school districts. Parents who have directed their children to opt out of the tests have expressed deep concern about their use in high-stakes decisions such as firing teachers.

NYSUT, the statewide teachers union, had urged parents to have their children not take the tests.