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Big Man on Campus

Buffalo teachers walked out on the state education commissioner last week, and the debate over teacher evaluations remains intractable

About 3pm last Friday, Maria Neira, vice president of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), reminded the more than 2,000 delegates at the union’s 40th representative assembly, gathered in the Buffalo-Niagara Convention Center, to be polite. The union had a tradition of welcoming state education commissioners to their assemblies, she noted.

This message also reminded those present, if a reminder was necessary, that education commissioner John King Jr. certainly is one of the more unpopular occupants of that office to address the teachers. A couple of hours earlier, when American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten mentioned King’s name during her address, there was a low chorus of angry voices and some boos rising above the aggregated thrum of the vast second-floor hall. King and the union have been at odds off and on since his appointment in 2010. And he’s viewed as high-handed, dictatorial and meddlesome by the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) leaders. In fact, BTF delegates staged a previously announced walkout as soon as King took to the podium after Neira’s introduction.

King didn’t seem to harbor any illusions about his reception. “There are some folks who are going to leave, so I’ll wait,” he told the audience, as 60 Buffalo delegates, joined by a number from districts in Grand Island, Chautauqua County, and elsewhere, left bearing signs that read, “Our students aren’t test scores.”

The BTF’s departure dramatized a long-running, complicated and much-contested effort to implement a teacher evaluation program for Buffalo’s public school teachers, in accordance with an agreement reached between NYSUT and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration. Funding to improve six inadequately performing schools in the district is contingent on the Buffalo district reaching an agreement with the BTF that’s satisfactory to Cuomo and King. For more than four months that’s been unattainable. And $5.6 million in federally provided funds for the current school term has been unattainable too. Next year, the funding and educational stakes will be even higher. Although most of the union delegates didn’t leave the hall with the Western New York demonstrators, the BTF’s position elicits considerable sympathy and support among both NYSUT leadership and rank and file.

Behind the mic, King is a modest- and earnest-sounding and personable communicator. But his graceful, conciliatory performance seemed to have little effect in dampening delegates’ doubts and resentments. When the floor was opened up for questions by union president Richard C. Iannuzzi, the nine or 10 people who made it to mics in the hall during the allotted time mostly gave vent to disagreements and charges about such matters as mismanaged state-imposed student assessments and the state education department’s alleged cozy relationship with private corporations and vendors. One man called for King’s resignation.

But the dispute over the teacher evaluations was the day’s most dramatic issue, and one with a potential impact for a much wider area than Buffalo. If the controversy continues for another month, as it has for over four months, the fight could be headed for the courts and increasing financial and educational disruptions in the Buffalo schools.

Neither the state union nor the BTF has placed itself in opposition to teacher evaluations nor to the quantified formulas King and the state have demanded. (BTF president Philip Rumore is a union board member.) The Buffalo union had reached an agreement on these evaluations in March, the third that was negotiated this year, that involved a sliding scale to be used to account for chronically absent students and the 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on standardized tests administered in the third and eighth grades. The state had been insisting on including absentee students in teachers’ year-to-year evaluations. King vetoed that agreement, the third time he’d done so. Both the BTF, and, more recently, the schools’ administrators, have described their frustration at Albany’s combination of adamancy and vagueness. Last week in Buffalo News reporter Mary Pasciak’s story on the Albany hearing for Buffalo’s appeal of King’s rejection, she described the district’s complaint that the state had “kept raising the bar” and had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its responses. Intentionally or not, this echoes the language Rumore has been using to criticize King’s conduct of the matter.

Elena Cala, the district’s community relations officer, told Artvoice this week that King and the state had even changed the time frame for his next decision: “Going into the hearing, we thought we’d hear back in 10 days. Afterwards, Mr. King said it wouldn’t be until around May 30.” She said the state had provided the interim Superintendent Amber Dixon with “little guidance” on its application until March.

It’s possible that Yale Law School graduate King was aware of his words’ ironic undertone when he told the Assembly, “I want to be clear about teacher evaluation. It’s ultimately about professional development,” even though, he added, “we may disagree on the details.” Those devilish details have been confusing and thwarting a resolution for months. Last week, King told the Buffalo News editorial board that it was the BTF’s failure to specify “what changes they want to make to the already approved agreement to move forward” that was blocking a solution. The union’s approval is another state requirement.

Nick Whitman, BTF labor relations specialist, doesn’t think the onus is on the union. The state, he observed in a telephone interview this week, imposed another set of changes after the union had already agreed to three plans but “it never vetted this with the BTF” despite the need for it to agree with the result. He cites what he says is the single most important and unreasonable of King’s latest demands. The city and the union had agreed to four categories of performance to total the twenty percent of the evaluation based on student achievement, ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective,” each to be worth five points. The state then insisted that these four levels be unevenly valued, making it harder for a teacher to be rated highly. “It’s not about the district and the BTF” Whitman said. The obstructionists are in Albany he asserted. (Efforts to obtain comments from the state education department were unsuccessful.)

Two Buffalo school employees who stood in the center’s lobby watching King on a television screen related their discontent and cynicism about the use of the testing regime underlying the evaluation schemes. (Neither wanted to be publicly identified.) King’s claim about professional development was, they both said, very misleading. The tests were rarely used to help students, in their view. “What are the tests for?” one asked rhetorically. “They’re used to monitor us. They’re not used to help failing students.” Additional services for underachieving students were only infrequently made available for them. “I teach what the district requires me to teach,” she said.

Standing nearby, Rumore turned from the TV set, and said, referring to King’s pending decision, “We’ll be in court. I have a feeling [the district] will be turned down.”

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