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More than 90 percent of the school districts in New York State had submitted teacher evaluation plans to Albany as of Friday – the soft deadline that state Education Department officials had set if schools did not want to jeopardize any of their state aid.

But amid a flood of last-minute submissions and revisions from schools, some people are wondering whether state officials will ease up on the hard Jan. 17 deadline that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wrote into law last spring.

Schools not only are required to submit their evaluation plans by that date, the plans also must be approved by the state Education Department by then. And with so many last-minute submissions and revisions, many are privately questioning whether state officials have enough staff to process the plans fast enough.

The Cuomo administration declined to say whether the governor might be open to amending the deadline, but a spokesman gave a less-definitive answer than the governor has offered in the past.

“We’re confident the state Education Department will be able to comply with the present schedule,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said.

Under the state law, any district that does not meet the deadline will lose this year’s increase in state aid.

Depew school officials started negotiating with union leaders more than a year ago, Superintendent Jeffrey Rabey said. The district submitted its plan to the state in July, and it was approved in October.

“Districts can’t afford to lose hundreds of thousands in state aid,” Rabey said.

In some districts, the stakes are much higher – as much as $33.4 million for Buffalo schools, for example.

Race against deadline

Senior legislators in Albany say they have been hearing of a variety of problems that districts and teachers unions face as they race against the funding deadline.

Reasons for the delays range from the Department of Education being unable to process all the applications to deals still not reached between schools and unions on an evaluation plan, officials said.

While state officials are not openly discussing changing the Jan. 17 deadline, they are offering some hints that suggest what had been a firm line-in-the-sand date could change. Some leaders of statewide education groups are floating the idea of changing the deadline so that districts need only to submit a plan by Jan. 17 – not necessarily have it approved by then.

“Obviously, we don’t want school districts to lose money, so it’s one of the issues we’re going to have to deal with. On the other hand, we think there should be compliance, so it’s a mixed bag, and I don’t think there’s any conclusions reached yet,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said in an interview.

Buffalo is among the districts that submitted a plan and then got feedback from the state. But now the union and the district have reached a stalemate. Union leaders say they will not resume negotiations until the district drops its court battle over the involuntary transfer of a few dozen teachers.

Feedback on plans

More than 633 of the nearly 700 districts in the state had submitted plans by Thursday, according to state Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman. Fewer than half of those plans have been approved.

The state has provided feedback on most of them, telling schools what needs to be changed before the plans can be approved. Another 75 districts have not yet received feedback.

Will the Jan. 17 deadline stand firm?

“I believe it’s very important to have guidelines and deadlines,” said Sen. John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who heads the Senate Education Committee. “At the same time, I don’t believe there should be an adverse effect on districts [that], for reasons beyond their control, haven’t gotten formal approval if there’s a significant backlog at the state Education Department.”

Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, said he stands firmly behind the law – including the Jan. 17 deadline set forth in it.

Teachers should be evaluated this year using the new plans, he said.

But Iannuzzi said that both state and local school officials failed to give teachers enough information about the national Common Core standards that were implemented statewide this year. As a result, he said, students will be tested at the end of the school year on material they might not have been taught. And student scores count for at least 20 percent of each teacher’s evaluation under the new law.

Because of that, the state should advise districts not to use this year’s teacher evaluations as part of employment decisions, he said.

“The state Ed Department should be giving guidance to school districts, saying they should be extremely cautious about how they use these [evaluations] at this point,” he said.

Despite debate in Albany over the evaluations and the deadline, most local school officials say they are not taking any chances.

“I am taking [the deadline] very seriously. I think most, if not all, superintendents are,” said Orchard Park Superintendent Matthew McGarrity. “We’ve asked the question of State Ed directly and indirectly. Every response we’ve gotten is that the governor’s timeline is the governor’s timeline. I haven’t gotten anything to indicate that plans would be approved beyond then.”

A potential bind

The situation puts Cuomo in a potential bind.

Does he want to be seen as unwilling to bend in such a way that he gets blamed for a local district losing state aid and having to cut programs in the middle of the school year?

“The governor was very specific about that January date, and it would be uncharacteristic of Governor Cuomo to change his mind. But so much has happened since then that he may understand the need for flexibility and a better understanding of how complicated this is and that it requires additional time. We hope so,” said Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com and mpaciak@buffnews.com