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Millions in Funding Lost After Teacher Evaluation Talks Break Down

By Jill Colvin | December 30, 2011 9:34pm
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said New York is the state with the largest income disparity.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said New York is the state with the largest income disparity.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MANHATTAN — Negotiations between the city and the teachers union on a new teacher evaluation system fell apart Friday, prompting the State Department of Education to suspend more than $60 million in federal funding that had been targeted at some of the city’s worst-performing schools.

"Sadly, the adults in charge of the City’s schools have let the students down,” State Education Commissioner John King said in a statement.

"This is beyond disappointing,” he said.

The city DOE and United Federation of Teachers had spent weeks in closed door meetings trying to hammer out the details of a “meaningful teacher evaluation system” in order to qualify for up to $65 million in federal funding in School Improvement Grants over the next two years, which is distributed by the state.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that cuts are necessary due to a dire budget situation at a Tues., Oct. 11, 2011, hearing.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that cuts are necessary due to a dire budget situation at a Tues., Oct. 11, 2011, hearing.
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William Alatriste/New York City Council

The money, some of which had already been disbursed, was promised to 44 of the lowest-achieving schools city-wide, including the Chelsea Career and Tech Ed High School and the Bread and Roses Integrated High School in Harlem. Eleven of those schools, including Washington Irving High School in Union Square, have since been pegged for closure.

It was not immediately clear if the funding could be restored if an agreement was reached at a later date.

With the cash at stake, the sides agreed in July to create a new four-category evaluation system that would rate teachers as "highly effective," “effective,” “developing” or “ineffective." Teachers receiving an "ineffective" rating two years in a row could be eligible for firing.

They also agreed then the new evaluations would be based 20 percent on state tests and 60 percent on teacher evaluations — but had left the remaining details up in the air, to be decided by Dec. 31.

Negotiations came down to the wire Friday as the deadline drew near, but the talks officially broke down at around 11 a.m., sources said.

Soon after, the city DOE released a letter from Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott informing King the talks had failed.

“Almost every step of the way, the UFT has insisted on conditions that I believe would undercut real accountability,” Walcott wrote, accusing the union of being “more interested in setting up procedural roadblocks to protect the very worst performing teachers” than reaching a deal.

“This disagreement — regarding both policy and principles — leads me to conclude that we will not be able to come to an agreement on a fair and progressive teacher evaluation system,” he wrote.

In a statement issued soon after, UFT President Michael Mulgrew fired back, saying it was the city DOE that had “refused to bargain in a meaningful way,” instead pushing for policies that would be a “disservice to the schools and the children they serve."

He said the union asked the city to engage in binding arbitration to sort out their remaining differences, but that the DOE refused.

The key point of contention appeared to be the UFT’s request to create an “impartial outside review” process to allow teachers who received "ineffective" or "developing" ratings the chance to appeal their grades.

Mulgrew said the safeguard was necessary to prevent principals from wielding "unfettered power over their employees” in light of several recent alleged attempts at unfair dismissal.

“It staggers the imagination to think that, given these facts, the DOE can continue to insist that no principal’s judgment can be questioned, and that no checks or balances are needed on their powers to destroy a teacher’s career,” he said.

But Walcott said that appointing an outside arbitrator would add a “burdensome new procedural layer” he charged was “designed to keep ineffective teachers in the classroom.”

Both sides had hailed the original agreement as a victory, which would help to “bring millions of dollars in federal funding to these struggling schools and recruit top quality teachers to help students succeed and mentor other staff,” in Walcott’s words.

The state teachers’ union, meanwhile, blamed King for the stalemate, slamming the the Dec. 31st deadline as “an arbitrary exercise of brinksmanship” that would disrupt services to the neediest schools.

They said the state should have applied for a waiver to give school districts more time to develop evaluation systems instead.

A spokesman for the department did not immediately respond to questions about whether waivers would have been allowed.

Earlier Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on his weekly radio sit-down that losing the money would be a shame.

“It would be not good if we lose that money. We certainly need it,” he said.

“My hope is that between now and tomorrow night…  We’ve got to do something.”