By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Disagreements over school employees' salary and benefits -- not the new state-mandated teacher evaluations -- are what's stalling some New York districts and their union partners from submitting performance assessment plans by a January approval deadline.
Though the majority of the state's roughly 700 districts missed the July 1 deadline to submit evaluation plans to the state Education Department, only about 119 have yet to reach agreement. As of Friday, 578 districts had submitted plans, 536 had received feedback and about 225 had been approved.
Under the controversial new system, teachers will be rated "highly effective," "effective," "developing" or "ineffective," based largely on student test scores and observations. Two consecutive "ineffective" ratings could be grounds for termination.
For schools that haven't submitted or are waiting for review or approval, a Jan. 17 deadline looms. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed districts without a state-stamped plan will lose a scheduled aid increase.
State Education Commissioner John King Thursday told Gannett's Albany Bureau that while most districts and partners have been working together productively, others are stuck.
"In some cases, the issues that are holding up completion are not about the evaluation but actually are about other contract issues -- salary issues, benefits issues," he said. "Those are sometimes more difficult to resolve.
"My hope is that as we get closer to January 17, districts will either resolve them or complete side agreements that resolve the evaluation issues, even if they haven't resolved every issue that they need to to complete a new contract," he continued.
Critics of the evaluation plans, which in order to be developed require schools and union leaders to work out local details, worried early on that either party might use the January deadline to force the other into making concessions.
In districts where a union contract has expired, negotiations over evaluations have become "entangled with traditional collective bargaining issues," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents.
Where that has happened, "there is no end in sight to reaching an agreement," Lowry said. "Either you make concessions on traditional contract items, or you risk losing state aid. That's an awful position to be in."
Like King, Lowry said his group is also advising districts to separate discussions about the evaluations from other contract negotiations.
"Certainly, we don't want to see districts and superintendents or boards getting blamed for a loss of state aid because they couldn't reach an agreement. And particularly, if it's over issues not related to (the evaluations)," Lowry said.
Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, a statewide union, said it should be a local decision whether to deal with the issues separately or in the same contract.
He argued that neither schools nor unions were attempting to take advantage.
"I don't think that either side is trying to hold up their plan in order to get a leg up in collective bargaining," he said. "No one wants to see this process any more disjointed than it already is."
Some districts might choose to ignore the deadline, though, he said. For wealthier districts that don't depend as heavily on state dollars, it might be more expensive to implement the new evaluation system than the roughly 4-percent aid increase is worth.
He said districts in the Hudson Valley, suburbs of Rochester and on Long Island might be in a position to turn down the aid increase.
Districts that miss the deadline will still need to design a plan that gets approved by the state, but the law says they have to do it by the time they negotiate their next union contract. Cuomo's threat, which Iannuzzi called "successful" if not ideal, acts as an incentive to implement the new plans sooner.
"So if they have a contract that runs out let's say to 2014 or 2015, then they wouldn't have to deal with the new evaluation law until 2014 or 2015," Iannuzzi said. "They are going to be few and far between, but I would not be too shocked if one or two popped up at the end that way."
The union president said districts' progress in submitting plans was what he expected.
"Our anticipation from the beginning was that it would start slowly and then move very rapidly," he said.
King, the education commissioner, hailed that now the majority of districts have submitted and a significant number have had plans approved.
"We're moving in a positive direction," he said.