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BTF to stage "mock" investigation at Kleinhans

Cuomo on Trial

The openly adversarial relationship between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) is about to become more oppositional, or at least more dramatic. In fact, dramatizing the union’s serious educational policy and practices dispute with the governor is a primary object of an event BTF president Phil Rumore has planned for later this month.

On March 24, the BTF will conduct a “mock grand jury investigation of Governor Cuomo” at Kleinhans Music Hall. In a memorandum issued to teachers Tuesday by the union and Rumore, he told union members that this grand jury investigation will only include Governor Cuomo “to keep the primary focus on him as we join with our colleagues across New York State with a unified message.”

This unorthodox program may be “mock” but the bill of charges comprises serious, even crucial, differences with Albany. The BFT charges include accusations that the governor has been guilty of “depriving students of their New York constitutional right to a sound basic education,” “brutalizing our students” by advocating for standardized tests that, it’s charged, are invalid and counter-productive; “undermining local control of schools.” All of these are part of a longstanding dispute the local and state union leaderships have had with the state’s educational administration, including the New York Board of Regents. But over the last two years or so, the conflict has sharpened and broadened.

The memo says that a “prosecutor” will bring charges and afterward, an audience will vote on whether Governor Cuomo will be indicted on each count. It indicates that the event will be primarily open to local educators and that efforts will be made to “prevent outsiders from disrupting the event.” In a telephone interview Tuesday, Rumore said that he hadn’t yet decided if he would serve as “prosecutor.”

The dispute with Albany became more heated recently when the governor proposed that standardized tests constitute half of teacher evaluations, that state funding to districts be used as a prod to get them to comply with this, and that takeovers of districts by outside entities be made easier.

Rumore told Artvoice that these proposals are all but certain to make state education worse. “Schools aren’t failing” he said, “the tests they’re using are. They’ve never been validated to measure student growth.” Furthermore, “—they’re age-inappropriate” and don’t take demographics into account.” Students at schools like Lafayette High School, he said, are trying to learn English and they often take tests in that language, doing poorly. “Where’s the surprise?” he asked. He said this event was designed to show the public that “the governor is guilty of undermining our students.” Instead of trying to punish teachers, he said, the governor should have pushed for improvement of the vital support services: More special education teachers, more guidance counselors—the state recommends they have caseloads of 250, Rumore said, and some have as many as 1000 students; more English-as-a-second language teachers, and other provisions of services necessary for sound education.

The governor, Rumore said, is practicing “educational genocide” against “”the neediest of the needy.” (A request for a response from the governor’s office Tuesday went unanswered.)

“It’s not just teachers,” Rumore said. “Parents across the state are with us.” There are some indications this may be true. A recent rally in West Seneca High School brought 1500 teachers, parents and others, most of them there to protest the governor’s attempt to tie money to test-based teacher evaluations. A protest at an Orchard Park school board meeting this week raised a similar complaint.

And Rumore’s complaints are at least partly echoed by Bob Dana, president of the Ken-Ton school board, who said Wednesday that Cuomo’s reduction in local school aid over the last several years under the so-called “gap elimination” program has cost his district $40 million. “He’s balancing his budget on the backs of our students,” Dana told Artvoice.

Dana has called for suspension of standardized tests mandated in New York in grades 3 through 8. In his mind, the testing and the funding constraints “are all part of Cuomo’s agenda.” “It’s all about everything he wants” he said. Tying teacher evaluations to those tests is professionally unsound and an additional imposition on over-burdened school districts , he said. “How do you compare a teacher in an advanced placement chemistry class with one relegated to teaching people who can’t read English?” he asked. These students may, for example, progress slowly in basic skills, but “a standardized test doesn’t measure that.”

Annual teacher evaluations, Dana noted, consume precious time and energy from educators who are already frequently over-committed, with duties like meeting working parents in evening hours. Teacher evaluations should be based, he said, on carefully designated desirable teacher attributes and be done every two or three years.

Rumore says he believes the governor has especially focused on Buffalo’s schools because of “a personal vendetta.” The BTF was the only union local to endorse Cuomo’s opponent in the primary election last year. A couple of weeks ago, the Buffalo News reported that Buffalo’s schools were the only ones cited in Cuomo’s recent report on so-called “failing schools” out of 700 state districts. Rumore notes that Buffalo falls into the middle of the largest city systems in the state, not the bottom.

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