By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
Jeff Preval, 2 On Your Side
ALBANY, NY At least two school districts -- and likely more -- struck secret deals with local unions agreeing not to use state-mandated teacher evaluations in firing decisions.
The state Education Department threatened the districts, Buffalo and Rome, Oneida County, in letters last month, urging the schools to revoke their side agreements or risk losing state funding.
According to state law, if a teacher shows a pattern of ineffective teaching or performance through these evaluations, unless there's some sort of special reason, then there are strong grounds to fire that teacher.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature tied teacher evaluation agreements to an increase in school aid for the current academic year. If the state pulled a district's approval because an unauthorized side agreement existed, the district could lose the increase it got this year.
Additionally, Buffalo could lose almost $14 million in grants that required an approved evaluation agreement for eligibility, the state wrote in a letter to the district dated March 25.
"I don't know the facts," Cuomo, who championed the evaluations, said Tuesday on "The Capitol Pressroom," a public radio show in Albany. "But if -- if -- (Buffalo) made a side deal that was contrary to what they certified to the state, that's right on the line of being fraud in the ethical, and possibly legal, sense."
Buffalo Public Schools says it been evaluating teachers for months now and the district says nothing has changed.
During the Buffalo School Board meeting Tuesday night, superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown Brown said, "it has always been our intent and commitment in collaboration with the unions, Buffalo Teachers Federation and BCSA, that we comply with education law."
Dr. Will Keresztes, associate education superintendent for the district said, "I can assure you this though, that the superintendent is committed to a great evaluation for our teachers one that holds them accountable, but also supports teachers."
2 On Your Side has requested an on-camera interview with Dr. Brown twice regarding this story and she has refused, instead releasing this statment:
My staff and I have been in ongoing communication with New York State Education Department officials before, during, and since the approval of our Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plan this past January. We, the District, have been committed all along to complying with our approved APPR agreement as well as all related laws, rules, and regulations.
It was our thought that in the development of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) we were doing just that because state law provides that all discussion regarding how evaluations will effect teacher employment be based on procedures negotiated under the Taylor Law.
To the extent that the procedures we negotiated, contained in the MOU, or any of our subsequent actions, are considered by the State to somehow be unlawful, I am in the process of preparing correspondence to Commissioner John King seeking clarification of the State's position.
Brown said in a statement last weekend that the district would implement the state-approved plan with "fidelity and in compliance" with the law.
"Those laws require the district to consider teacher and principal ratings in decisions relating to promotion, retention, tenure determination, termination, and supplemental compensation," Brown said.
"Therefore, all federal and state laws, regulations and rules will be taken into consideration when determining whether disciplinary action ... is appropriate," she finished.
The state law governing evaluations, passed in 2012, requires that teachers and principals are rated on a scale of "highly effective," "effective," "developing" and "ineffective." Two consecutive years of the lowest ratings could be grounds for termination.
According to the letter from the education department, the state became aware of Buffalo's side agreement when the local teachers union referred on its website to a "memorandum of understanding" that existed between the district and union.
The memo allegedly stated, according to the state: "No teacher will be negatively affected by the results of their evaluation rating for 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years." The memo was dated Jan. 15, two days before the state deadline for approval. Buffalo's plan was approved that day, with just hours to spare.
The state warned that any agreements contrary to the state-approved plan would be null.
"As part of the signed certification in this plan, you and the presidents of the (unions) and the board of education acknowledged that this was the sole plan for the (evaluations) of your classroom teachers and principals in your district," the state wrote in the letter. "Therefore, the Department considers void any other previously signed agreements."
In Rome, a local newspaper reported in March that the district and local union agreed to "hold harmless" teachers and principals from negative evaluations in the first years of implementation.
"Please take immediate steps to rectify any confusion that may have resulted from the Rome Sentinel news story (including contacting the Rome Sentinel to correct the story)," the education department wrote to Rome schools on March 27, referring to the newspaper article. "Further, failure to have an approved (evaluation) plan, in full compliance with (education law), can result in various consequences, including but not limited to suspension and/or redirection of federal funds."
Rome schools had no immediate comment.
Because the deals were not included in the plans districts submitted to the education department, it is possible there are other similar agreements the state doesn't know about, state officials indicated.
Rochester, which is a "Big Five" school district, like Buffalo, does not have a side deal, a spokesman said in a statement Tuesday.
"There is no 'quiet agreement' of any kind," spokesman Chip Partner said. "The Rochester (evaluation) agreement, as approved by the State, openly states that a rating of Ineffective or Developing may be utilized as evidence in a (disciplinary hearing) so long as a teacher has had the opportunity to have an improvement plan."
Unions and the educators they represent have expressed concerns that new state tests for third through eighth graders this month would drive down evaluation scores. The state has said they're expecting as much as a 30 percent drop in proficiency rates, and student growth on state exams counts for 20 percent of evaluations.
The state has argued that the lower test scores will not negatively affect teachers and pledged to help districts make tweaks to their evaluations plans to reflect the tests' newness.
For the state test-score portion, similar teachers with similar students will be compared to each other, rather than the expected lower scores being compared to last year's tests, Associate State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said last week.
Some districts, though, planned to use state test results as indicators of student growth in other aspects of their evaluation systems. Education department officials said in a conference call with reporters April 15 that it would to work with those districts to amend the plans, if necessary.
"If there were schools and districts that did not fully expect the changes as reflected by the test scores, the state will provide additional guidance later this spring to help them adjust any kind of local implementation of their (evaluation) plan," Wagner said.
An education department spokesman last week said the "guidance" is being developed now and didn't provide further details.