Philip Rumore has played chicken with local school officials – and won.
He has played chicken with the state education commissioner – and won.
Now the head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation is playing chicken again. But this time, he's up against someone likely to be a much tougher opponent - and one who has earned a reputation for getting his way when it comes to education: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
The point of contention continues to be the state-mandated system for evaluating teacher effectiveness and prescribing remedies for struggling teachers, with more than $33 million in state funds at stake.
During the last school year, then-Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon threatened dozens of midyear layoffs if Rumore wouldn't sign an evaluation plan by a certain date. That didn't happen.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. threatened to revoke more than $5 million in grant funds if Rumore didn't sign by a certain date. That happened – but only for a while. Rumore signed a plan several months after the due date, and King reinstated the money.
The deadlines set by local officials and by King seem to have turned out to be suggestions rather than actual deadlines.
But Cuomo says his deadline is firm.
He has given every district in New York until Jan. 17, 2013, to not only submit an approvable plan to the state Education Department, but have it approved.
“The governor included a strong mechanism to ensure that school districts implement teacher evaluations,” said Cuomo spokesman Matt Wing, “because districts have not adopted past teacher evaluation systems and because creating accountability in the classroom through evaluations is critical to improve teaching and learning.”
The leaders of several statewide education groups begged off on speculating over whether Cuomo will offer any flexibility on the deadline, but many noted that the deadline is written into state law.
Cuomo's record on education issues thus far suggests he is going to hold a hard line, even where the state Education Department has not:
• He pushed through a property tax cap that forces districts to contain their spending increases – or gamble on voter support – despite districts' complaints that most cost increases are beyond their control.
• In his first year in office, Cuomo set in motion major cuts in state aid, telling schools it was time to dip into their rainy day funds to cover shortfalls.
• And this year, he convinced the New York State United Teachers union to back his teacher evaluation bill, which has caused a great outcry among classroom teachers, many of whom say the way the plan counts student performance toward their ratings is unfair.
In Buffalo, Rumore last year grudgingly agreed to work out an evaluation agreement with the district, but it applied to only some teachers, and it expired at the end of the last school year.
The sticking point for working out an evaluation plan for this school year, Rumore says, is the fact that district officials are continuing to press a court battle over the involuntary transfer of 53 teachers this school year from three low-performing schools. An arbitrator ruled the transfers violated the contract, and a State Supreme Court justice upheld the ruling. The district is appealing the case.
The union's Council of Delegates voted in September to suspend negotiations on the evaluation plan until the district drops its court fight.
“How can we sit down at the table with any kind of trust if there's an open arbitration that they've violated the contract?” Rumore said. “They know we are willing to go back to the table when they are willing to abide by the arbitrator's decision. We'll be back at the table the next day.”
The governor earlier in the year told school districts that if they didn't have an approved teacher evaluation plan in place by Jan. 17, 2013, they would forfeit this year's increase in state aid.
For Buffalo, that translates into $33.4 million. Superintendent Pamela C. Brown says that would result in a crippling number of layoffs, when added to an additional $25 million the district stands to lose in several other sources of aid that are also contingent upon having a teacher evaluation plan.
“This would be devastating,” Brown said.
Buffalo submitted a plan to the state in July, but state Education Department officials rejected it. The main sticking point: The plan awards extra points to teachers who have a lot of students who are chronically absent, disabled, or are not native English speakers. Some teachers would get so many extra points that they could never be rated ineffective.
“I'm relatively sure it wouldn't take us long to come to agreement with the district on how to solve it,” Rumore said. “We've got time. It's not even November. We have until Jan. 17. It shouldn't take us very long. They could stop this right away by saying, 'Let's see if we can work something out on the three schools.' ”
School districts were supposed to have their evaluation plans submitted to the state Education Department by July 1, although there was some leeway given in cases where outstanding issues still had to be negotiated.
The governor set the absolute deadline for having an approved plan at Jan. 17, but the actual deadline by which districts have to submit their final plan is somewhat unclear. The state Education Department has advised districts that it needs four to six weeks to review each plan, but has not given a firm cutoff.
So far, nearly 500 of the almost 700 districts in New York State have submitted evaluation plans.
“We know dozens if not hundreds of others are negotiating seriously and are close to agreeing on plans,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman. “We are confident that by January, all of the districts will have their teacher principal evaluation plans in place.”
But Korn acknowledged that NYSUT has a list of about three dozen districts where negotiations are going slowly or have stalled.
“It's complex, difficult work. It's more important to get it done right than just to get it done,” he said.
Schools have been required by state law for more than two years to have a teacher evaluation plan in place that incorporates student achievement as part of teacher ratings.
But this is the first time that schools will suffer a consequence if they do not have such a plan in place.
The state law that Cuomo championed requires each district to adopt a teacher evaluation plan – but it's up to each district to negotiate the details of the plan with its union.
Buffalo School Board members say they have been put in an unwinnable situation – the state is requiring them to do something that requires the union's approval. But the board has repeatedly been unable to persuade Rumore to comply with various reforms required by the state and federal governments.
“The governor and legislators are saying we have this problem, but as far as I see it, they are not coming to our aid,” said Sharon Belton-Cottman, who represents the Ferry District on the School Board.
Florence Johnson, who has served on the board for two decades, says she is more frustrated than she's ever been. She says it's time to hire outside legal counsel to investigate what options the district might have.
“The children are being held hostage because the board is bound to adhere to federal and state law,” she said. “I'm tired of playing tiddlywinks. Tell me what to do. If I have to, I will file [a lawsuit] on my own.”
Until now, local and state officials alike have acknowledged that there is no way they can compel Rumore to meet deadlines or abide by federal or state regulations.
Clearly exasperated, they have tried a number of approaches.
They have asked nicely. They have threatened. They have pleaded.
Most recently, the superintendent took her case to the court of public opinion, in the hopes of bringing public pressure to bear on the union. Brown sounded the alarms, noting that $58.7 million hangs in the balance.
“This is a call to action and a hope that we can get back to the table with our mutual aim to make sure we are providing a quality to all our children,” she told the School Board last week.
She is hardly the first public official to try that tactic.
King has repeatedly called for a large-scale campaign to urge the union into compliance, at one point suggesting that people should be occupying their schools in protest, not camping out in tents on Niagara Square.
“Unless there's public outrage and a public demand for change in the schools, not just from people in the Buffalo Public Schools, but from the public at large, saying, 'We're not happy with the school system,' the schools will continue to fail students,” King said.