budget cut

In hearing, King calls for curbing Cuomo's competitive grants

Chancellor Dennis Walcott testifies before legislators during a hearing about Gov. Cuomo's proposed education budget.

State Education Commissioner John King spent most of his time before legislators today going to bat for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed schools budget.

But on one key point, he said the Board of Regents would prefer a change. The Regents would rather not hinge so much of the state’s funds on a competition among districts, King said.

Cuomo proposed using $250 million of a proposed $800 million school aid increase to reward districts for strong academic performance and management efficiency. King said the Regents, whose agenda is similar but not identical to Cuomo’s, would slash that number by 80 percent. They would still hand out $50 million through a competition but think the remaining $200 million would be better used helping high-needs districts cover their expenses, he said.

The proposal is similar to what was proposed by the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that Cuomo’s office has named as a nemesis, and augurs a possible battle over the budget in the two months before it must be approved.

During today’s joint State Senate and Assembly hearing on the state’s elementary and secondary education budget in Albany, legislators wanted to talk about another one of Cuomo’s strings-attached school funding proposals: to tie districts’ state aid to new teacher evaluations.

Last month, King cut off federal funds to 10 districts, including New York City, when they did not meet a deadline for negotiating new teacher evaluations. King said today he expected all of those districts to appeal his decision and was helping most of them redo their applications to include promises of tougher teacher evaluations.

The “nagging issue” of appeals for low ratings, which caused the negotiations impasse in New York City, is trickier to resolve, King said.

“Certainly that is a source of concern for the governor, for the mayor, to me,” he said. “But at the same time it’s not the department’s role to mediate local collective bargaining agreements.”

Mayor Bloomberg announced earlier this month that the city would adopt a new school improvement model, turnaround, that does not require new teacher evaluations. The city still has not formally submitted applications for that change, King said today, adding that the applications could take weeks to review when they do arrive.

“It’s a very large change they are proposing to make, to many schools,” King said. “Their challenge will be to explain how … turnaround makes sense for the students in those schools.”

During his testimony later in the hearing, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city anticipated filing applications for each school within the next two weeks — bringing the city to the brink of a legal deadline to notify schools that are being proposed for closure.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chair of the Assembly’s education committee, criticized the turnaround plans, which require half of the teachers to be removed at 33 low-performing schools.

“These schools need support and they need services. They don’t need turmoil,” she said. “To change [plans] midstream is causing a great deal of upsetness.”

But Nolan’s criticism did not extend to the city’s position on teacher evaluations. She didn’t bring the issue up during her first round of questions for Walcott, but when the chancellor was preparing to leave the stand, she said the “Twitterverse” had instructed her to ask about evaluations.

After offering Walcott a chance to add more about the city’s position, Nolan said he had her “complete cooperation” moving forward.

In his testimony, Walcott lauded Cuomo’s aid-for-evaluations gambit and the restoration of funding proposed for January Regents exams. For the second year in a row, Walcott also pushed legislators to consider making it quicker and easier for districts to fire teachers accused of misconduct. But just as happened last year, he agreed with legislators who said the city’s misconduct hearings, known as 3020-a hearings, are the most efficient in the state.

Both Walcott and UFT President Michael Mulgrew said they would not support the state’s bid to pass on some costs of the 3020-a hearings to local districts. Cuomo said in his State of the State speech that doing so would give districts an incentive to speed hearings. But Walcott said today that districts are already motivated to move quickly through hearings so they can free up the salaries of teachers who are dismissed.

In his testimony before the legislators, Mulgrew said the UFT remains committed to hammering out new teacher evaluations with the city.

“I like the idea that the governor put more pressure on all of us,” he said.

He also asked legislators to earmark $5 million to expand the College Now program, which allows city students to take college courses while still in high school.

Walcott’s complete testimony is below.                                                                                     

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”

fight another day

In union defeat, lawmakers end session without revamping teacher evaluation law

After a hard-fought battle by the state teachers union, New York lawmakers went home for the summer without overhauling a controversial teacher evaluation law that ties state test scores to educator ratings.

The bill pushed by the unions would have left decisions about whether to use state test scores in teacher evaluations up to local union negotiations. While the bill cleared the Assembly, it was bottled up by the Senate’s leadership, which demanded charter school concessions in return that Assembly Democrats wouldn’t agree to.

The effort to decouple test scores from teacher evaluations was one of several that fizzled out at the end of a lackluster session characterized by lawmaker gridlock.

“Sen. Flanagan, his caucus and five Democrats chose to betray the state’s teachers,”  said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement. “Make no mistake, New York teachers, parents and public school students will remember which senators voted against their public schools when we head to the polls this September and again in November.”

There is some possibility that lawmakers could return to finish a few unresolved issues this summer, but Pallotta told Chalkbeat he is not holding out hope for that outcome.

The lack of action is a defeat for the state teachers union, which fought hard for the bill since the beginning of the session. Union officials have staged musical rallies, bought balloons, rented a truck with a message urging lawmakers to pass the bill, and capped off the last day of session handing out ice cream for the cause.

However, the legislative loss gives the union something to rally around during this fall’s elections. Also, other education advocacy organizations are content to engage in a longer process to revamp evaluations.

“Inaction isn’t always the worst outcome,” said Julie Marlette, Director of Governmental Relations for the New York State School Boards Association.“Now we can continue to work with both legislative and regulatory figures to hopefully craft an update to evaluations that is thoughtful and comprehensive and includes all the stakeholders.”  

The news also means that New York’s teacher evaluation saga which has been raging for eight years will spill over into at least next year. Policymakers have been battling about state teacher evaluations since 2010, when New York adopted a system that started using state test scores to rate teachers in order to win federal “Race to the Top” money.

Teacher evaluations were altered again in 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a more stringent evaluation system, saying evaluations as they existed were “baloney.” The new system was met with resistance from the teachers unions and parents across the state. Nearly one in five families boycotted state tests in response to evaluation changes and a handful of other education policies.

The state’s Board of Regents acted quickly, passing a moratorium on the use of grades three to eight math and English tests in teacher evaluations. But the original 2015 law remains on the books. It was a central plank in that law which could require as much as half of an educator’s evaluation to be based on test scores that the unions targeted during this session.

With the moratorium set to expire in 2019, the fight over teacher evaluations will likely become more pressing next year. It may also allow the state education department to play a greater role in shaping the final product. State education department officials had begun to lay out a longer roadmap for redesigning teacher evaluations that involved surveys and workgroups, but the legislative battle threatened to short-circuit their process.

Now officials at the state education department say they will restart their work and pointed out that they could extend the moratorium to provide extra time if needed.

“We will resume the work we started earlier this year to engage teachers, principals and others as we seek input in moving toward developing a new educator evaluation system,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

For some education advocates, slowing down the process sounds like a good idea.

“Our reaction on the NYSUT Assembly teacher evaluation bill is that you could do worse but that you could also do better and that we should take time to try,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

What seems to be a setback for the union now may be a galvanizing force during elections this fall. Republican lawmakers will likely struggle to keep control of the state Senate, and NYSUT is promising to use this inaction against them. That could be particularly consequential in Long Island, which is a hotbed of the testing opt-out movement.

It’s unclear whether the failure to act will also prove problematic for Cuomo, who is also seeking re-election. Cuomo, who pushed for the 2015 law the unions despise, is facing competition from the left in gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon.

But at least so far, it seems like the union is reserving the blame for Senate Republicans and not for the governor.

Cuomo is “making it clear that he has heard the outcry,” said Pallotta. “I blame Senator Flanagan, I blame his conference and I blame 5 [Senate] Democrats.”