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Hempstead facing $3.5M state aid loss, possible teacher layoffs

Hempstead school officials and union representatives say they're

Hempstead school officials and union representatives say they're racing the clock to avoid the threatened loss of $3.5 million in state financial aid, coupled with possible midyear layoffs of teachers. (June 20, 2012) Credit: Angela Gaul

Hempstead school officials and union representatives say they're racing the clock to avoid the threatened loss of $3.5 million in state financial aid, coupled with possible midyear layoffs of teachers.

The two issues are intertwined because the district and its 510-member teachers' union are negotiating both a new salary contract and an agreement on how teachers' job performance will be evaluated.

Hempstead missed the state Department of Education's unofficial Dec. 1 deadline for submitting an evaluation plan, raising the possibility that the district could be penalized by the loss of additional state funding.

Statewide, 679 school districts have submitted plans so far and 358 have won Albany's approval, education officials reported Monday. The only Long Island districts that have not sent in plans, besides Hempstead, are Elmont, Montauk and Oysterponds.

Three of the state's largest systems -- New York City, Buffalo and Yonkers -- also are running late. New York City could forfeit $300 million in aid without an agreement.

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, who lives in Manhattan, voiced confidence in an interview that New York City's school authorities and teacher representatives ultimately will reach agreement.

"Both sides know what's at stake," said Tisch, who in the past has criticized the pace of negotiations.

In Hempstead, both sides played down the possibility of an aid loss and teacher layoffs, saying late last week that a recent change in the district's administration could lead to a quick settlement.

Elias Mestizo, president of the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, acknowledged in a phone interview that the district had raised the possibility of January layoffs with some teachers. He said he didn’t know how many teachers might be affected.

Mestizo denied that the union had in any way triggered the potential for layoffs by insisting that teachers receive pay raises before they agreed to an evaluation plan. He noted that his local was among the first in the state in 2009 to help design new evaluations.

Under state law, both districts and unions must sign off on evaluation plans and get them approved by the Education Department. Otherwise, they risk partial losses of state aid.

Mestizo said he had proposed that the union and the district agree quickly to both a job-evaluation plan and to nonfinancial provisions of a new contract, while leaving negotiations on financial issues for later. The teachers' contract expired June 30, 2011.

"We're not holding up on salaries," said Mestizo, who teaches middle-school Spanish and other languages and has worked in Hempstead for 11 years. "We understand the importance of teacher evaluations, and we're ready to move forward."

The union president added that a settlement with the district seems more likely now that the former superintendent, Patricia Garcia, has been replaced. The interim schools chief, Susan Johnson, who headed the district once before, took over Nov. 5.

Johnson suggested that the issue of teacher evaluations could be separated from contract raises, and that teacher layoffs might be averted.

"I think we're going to reach an agreement that will make them unnecessary," she said. "We have time to bring this to closure."

Both the union president and the superintendent declined to discuss details of negotiations.

Jan. 17 is the deadline for districts to obtain state approval of teacher evaluation plans. Last month, the Education Department told districts to get their plans in by Dec. 1 to allow adequate time for review and revisions.

Officials in Elmont and Montauk have voiced confidence that settlements can be reached in time. Oysterponds superintendent Richard Malone did not return Newsday's calls last week. Hempstead, with 6,200 students, is by far the largest district on the Island that has not submitted an evaluation plan.

In February, the state's elected officials and union representatives agreed, after months of wrangling, to a revised teacher evaluation system based partly on student test performance. The agreement helped maintain the state's eligibility for nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top school improvement money.

From the beginning, some local school officials contended that requiring union agreement on evaluation plans could give the unions too much bargaining leverage on other issues, such as contract raises.
Unions countered that the requirement for union agreement on evaluation plans was a fair trade for their assenting, for the first time, to allow student test scores to be tied to teacher evaluations.

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