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Elia grants Cash more latitude to force changes at schools

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is greatly expanding the school superintendent’s ability to make changes at certain schools without the approval of the teachers union, continuing the shift of power to a receiver.

Elia has granted Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash the power to impose contractual changes at 15 additional schools in receivership. He already has that authority at five schools.

That means Cash could make changes like lengthening the school day and year, requiring teacher training and making staff changes based on merit instead of seniority.

Cash now has the authority to force certain contract terms at nearly half of the schools in the district, significantly cutting into the power of the teachers union and its ability to negotiate work rules for its members. ----

Interactive map: Buffalo schools under superintendent’s control


On deck are another five schools where Cash likely will ask for similar powers.

“I have considered all of the positions and the evidence presented by the parties and all relevant factors, including applicable collective bargaining principles and the best interest of the students,” Elia wrote in her decision.

The ruling also underscores the commissioner’s focus on turning around Buffalo’s most struggling schools, even as the state backs away from other controversial education reforms. Earlier this month, the Board of Regents decided to delay including standardized tests in teacher evaluations, and Elia is taking steps to review the Common Core standards.

At the same time, she is not backing down on Buffalo.

The receivership law allows for the superintendent – and potentially an outside entity – to make changes at struggling schools without approval from the School Board and that circumvent the union contract. The superintendent must first attempt to negotiate contractual changes with the union, but if he is unsuccessful, he can ask the commissioner to make a decision.

For this latest round of schools, the two parties also had to meet with an outside arbitrator.

Only New York City has more schools in receivership. But Buffalo is the first district to ask Elia to intervene.

Elia’s decision will likely add fuel to a legal challenge by New York State United Teachers union, which is already putting together a challenge to the commissioner’s ruling on the first five schools.

One of the union’s main arguments is that the receivership law contradicts the Taylor Law, New York’s long-standing statute that sets ground rules for contract negotiations.

“I expected this,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. “There’s an argument to be made about whether one law can trump another.”

The receivership law could face other challenges because of the decision to delay using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. A state task force found that the tests are not reliable enough to be used for that purpose. Those same tests, however, were a major factor in determining which schools were placed in receivership.

Elia has been dismissive of that issue, noting that a new federal law still requires states to have accountability systems that identify its lowest performing schools.

“The schools that we’re talking about certainly have been in dire straits for a long time,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t think we can say this is all related to one assessment. In Buffalo, we can’t go another generation with these schools failing.”