The Buffalo schools will not honor an agreement with the teachers union that promised not to use two years of evaluations as grounds to fire any teacher, Superintendent Pamela C. Brown announced Thursday evening.
“The state Education Department has determined that the memorandum of understanding dated Jan. 15, 2013, between the Buffalo City School District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation is void,” she said in a written statement. “The district will proceed in accordance with the department’s determination.”
For several days, Brown has declined to discuss with The Buffalo News the district’s so-called side agreement with the union. But in the past six days, she has released three brief written statements. Each one has, to one extent or another, contradicted the statement before it.
Her most recent announcement came as the result of pressure from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office, sources said.
“The Governor’s Office pressured the superintendent to take this action and do what was right for our kids,” an administration source said.
This apparently means that more than $50 million is no longer in jeopardy for the district.
But Brown will not emerge unscathed from the current teacher evaluation debacle. The district will almost certainly find itself in a court battle with the BTF.
“As far as we’re concerned, the agreement that we reached stands, and we will take whatever action is necessary to enforce that agreement, because it was fair,” BTF President Philip Rumore said. “If there has to be a battle, so be it.”
Brown’s handling of the situation – avoiding a public discussion of the matter, flip-flopping repeatedly in less than a week and generally lacking a clear and consistent position – has magnified the perception among many that Brown may not be up to the task of running New York’s largest upstate school district.
“She’s in over her head” is a refrain frequently heard from teachers, principals and City Hall administrators.
But the superintendent is hardly the only person likely to suffer profound professional consequences from Buffalo’s teacher evaluation skirmishes.
Scores of teachers could lose their jobs a few months from now as a result of poor evaluations, depending on how the situation is resolved and how they are evaluated this year.
And the entire flap over evaluations has likely left Rumore more vulnerable than ever as he heads into a re-election battle within his union just days from now.
After Rumore’s 30-plus years leading the union, some teachers are questioning whether his time has come and gone.
Some blame Rumore for what they say are flaws in the evaluation process. Some say he gave them false confidence that their jobs would be safe regardless of their evaluations.
And quite a few think he has not fought hard enough to resist changes on the evaluations.
“A lot of teachers are upset because we were assured this year that the most recent agreement would not allow teachers to be terminated after two ‘ineffective’ ratings in a row. That’s the main reason schools voted for [the evaluation plan],” said Marc Bruno, a Riverside teacher running against Rumore for the union presidency.
The state law allows districts – but does not explicitly require them – to pursue termination for any teacher who gets rated “ineffective” two years in a row. It also states that schools “shall” use the evaluations in employment decisions, including terminations.
Saturday, Brown released a statement that appeared to be an attempt to distance her from the agreement with the union.
“The district is committed to implementing the approved plan with fidelity and in compliance with all relevant federal and state laws, regulations and rules,” she wrote.
“Those laws require the district to consider teacher and principal ratings in decisions relating to promotion, retention, tenure determination, termination and supplemental compensation.”
Wednesday afternoon, she released another three-paragraph statement.
She reiterated that the district was committed to complying with “all related laws, rules and regulations.”
But then she went on to apparently defend the side agreement: “It was our thought that in the development of the memorandum of understanding we were doing just that because state law provides that all discussion regarding how evaluations will effect [sic] teacher employment be based on procedures negotiated under the Taylor Law.”
Brown then said she was “in the process of preparing correspondence to Education Commissioner John King seeking clarification of the state’s position.”
There hasn’t been much ambiguity in the state’s position, however. In a recent interview, King told The Buffalo News: “There can be no side agreements.”
Any district with such an agreement not to use the evaluations toward termination proceedings would jeopardize their increase in state aid and other funds, he said.
And Cuomo said this week on an Albany radio show that the side agreement “was on the line of being a fraud in the ethical and legal sense.”
Pressure from the governor’s office apparently brought Brown around full circle to the sentiment in the statement she had released on Saturday that indicated she would comply with state law, rather than honor the agreement she signed with the union.
In the statement Brown released Thursday, she said that “in my correspondence with Commissioner King, I assured him of my commitment to adhere to all education laws, rules and regulations with respect to our approved [evaluation plan].”
In 2011-12, Buffalo was one of a handful of districts across the state receiving federal school improvement grants.
To qualify for the money, the district had to have a state-approved teacher evaluation plan in place at the six schools receiving the grants: Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute; International School 45; and Bennett, Riverside, South Park and Burgard high schools.
That means the 400 or so teachers at those six schools were evaluated last year.
Several weeks ago, they got back their evaluations. Many of the teachers – at some schools, as many as half – were rated ineffective, several sources said.
Both the state Education Department and the district’s executive director of human resources declined to say how many teachers were rated ineffective.
“The final number of teachers that were rated ineffective has yet to be determined,” Darren J. Brown, executive director for human resources, said in an email. “Teachers are still able to appeal their ineffective rating, and the district is able to issue a decision. Since that time has not passed, the final number of teachers rated ineffective cannot be determined at this moment.”
But sources at some of the six schools said many teachers received the lowest possible rating.
“I’ve heard most of our building was deemed ineffective,” said Tara Bukowski, an English teacher at Bennett High School. “It’s a big mess right now. People are very concerned. Especially at Bennett, people are concerned we’re not going to have jobs. It’s a way for the district and the state to get rid of people who are getting paid more or aren’t easily manipulated and replace them with new teachers.”
Several district employees told The News that there appeared to be either mathematical problems with the way the ratings were calculated or logical flaws with the basis on which the determinations were made, based on the agreement that Rumore negotiated with the district and that teachers approved.
Union representatives are telling any teacher who was rated ineffective or as developing to appeal the evaluation, teachers said.
Rumore said he did not know how many teachers were rated ineffective but that “there was one school in particular where we appealed and the principal was outraged because the way they came out was all wrong,” a reference to the evaluations at Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute.
Since The News began asking about reports that Buffalo had quietly negotiated a deal with its union taking the teeth out of its evaluation plan, Rumore has been saying that Buffalo is just one of many districts in the state with such an agreement.
Nobody has been able to confirm that, however.
King, for instance, said there are “a number” of districts with such an agreement, but he declined to name any of them.
Each time Rumore mentions other districts with similar agreements, the number he cites gets bigger.
Several days ago, Rumore said that his staff had Googled and found a few districts with side agreements. On Wednesday, he said that district administrators had Googled and found more than a dozen such districts.
On Wednesday, Rumore told a reporter that he had heard that there were 50 districts in the state with such an agreement.
“I called NYSUT and told them that,” Rumore said. “They said there are more than 50.”
That came as news to NYSUT.
“I don’t know where Phil is getting that number from,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman. “These school board-union agreements are locally negotiated, and we don’t track them. So we don’t know how many there are.”