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Long IslandEducation

Most LI districts owe state eval plans, with $300M at stake

An eighth-grade science class at Longwood Junior High

An eighth-grade science class at Longwood Junior High School in Yaphank on Jan. 15, 2016. The Longwood school district is among just eight in Suffolk County to have had its new teacher evaluation plans accepted by the state so far. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Only 21 of Long Island’s 124 school districts have submitted new teacher evaluation plans to Albany for approval as deadlines loom, accompanied by the threat of stiff financial penalties for noncompliance.

Failure by districts to win timely state Education Department approval could result in fines totaling as much as $300 million in Nassau and Suffolk counties and $2 billion statewide. Penalties are set by state law and equivalent to two years’ worth of increases in state aid distributed to districts by Albany.

Local school administrators told Newsday this week they would meet any deadlines necessary rather than risk loss of the state funding. Many administrators added, however, that they have delayed action in the hope that New York legislators move in coming days to revise evaluation requirements that many in the education community said they consider a “waste of time.”

However, chances of getting such changes approved before the Legislature adjourns later next week appeared iffy, representatives of education groups in Albany said Friday.

The Education Department asked districts to send in their evaluation plans for teachers and principals by June 30, so the agency has adequate time to review the hundreds of thick documents expected to be delivered by districts statewide. Under law, districts must win department approval by Sept. 1 — a tight schedule considering that plans also must be approved by members of local teacher unions, typically off during the summer.

Thirteen districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties so far have had the state sign off on their new job-performance plans, under which educators’ ratings are based largely on results of Common Core testing. Figures were compiled this week by the state Education Department at Newsday’s request.

Nassau districts with state-approved plans are Franklin Square, Freeport, Island Park, Lynbrook and Oceanside. Suffolk districts with plans accepted by the state are Half Hollow Hills, Harborfields, Longwood, Middle Country, Sagaponack, Tuckahoe, Wainscott and William Floyd.

An additional eight school systems on the Island have submitted plans but not yet received a nod from the department. The remainder of the region’s districts — 103 in all — have not turned in their plans.

The new evaluation blueprints, which would replace older plans, are required by a change in state law that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed through the legislature in April 2015. That law toughened requirements for teachers’ ability to receive “effective” job ratings by raising the portion of evaluations based on students’ test performance to as much as 50 percent.

However, the governor reversed course later last year after a statewide test boycott by an estimated 240,000 students, including more than 70,000 on the Island. Cuomo in September appointed an advisory task force that recommended a four-year moratorium on putting into effect the portion of the new law requiring that evaluations use state test scores from grades three through eight.

The state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, approved the moratorium three months later. Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who reports to the Regents, has pledged to spend the next four years revising Common Core academic standards and the tests based on those standards.

The rapid shifts in state policy have frustrated local school leaders, many of whom ask why they now should spend much of their time negotiating changes in evaluation plans, even as the state is in the midst of overhauling the entire system.

“Why? Why? It’s as bizarre as it gets,” said David Weiss, superintendent of Long Beach schools. “We have to do all this assessment and data reporting for something that’s not going to be used.”

“Waste of time is probably the operative word here,” said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. “The state expects us to spend the summer thrashing out new evaluation plans for a Common Core scenario which is now on hold.”

Another argument put forth by school representatives is that ongoing negotiations over evaluation plans put them in a tight spot by pressuring them to make concessions in other areas, such as union contractual raises.

“There are districts where it takes countless hours to hammer this out, where the landscape is just pockmarked by big battles over this,” said John Gross, senior managing partner of the Ingerman Smith law firm, which is based in Hauppauge. The firm represents 53 school districts on Long Island and the lower Hudson region.

State lawmakers, who are scheduled to adjourn next week, have talked about possible action to ease the time pressures on school districts.

One proposed law, backed by Assembly leaders, would delay until the 2019-20 school year any financial penalties for districts that don’t get new evaluation plans approved. That would extend a one-year reprieve already granted to districts that ends Sept. 1.

A Cuomo spokeswoman, Dani Lever, declined comment on whether the governor might go along with such an approach. Robert Caroppoli, communications director for Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan (R-East Northport), also had no immediate comment.

“It’s an uphill climb,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, referring to the chances for legislative change.

The governor, meanwhile, continues to be dogged by questioning of his education policies. On Monday, he visited a tourist site in the mid-Hudson region, where reporters sought his response to continuing test boycotts.

Cuomo responded by placing much of the blame for unrest over testing on the Regents, who are elected by the Assembly.

“The problem is that the state Education Department, which is the Board of Regents, it is run by the Board of Regents, did a terrible job in implementing Common Core,” Cuomo said. “I have no role whatsoever in selecting the Board of Regents.”

Many Regents themselves acknowledge that Common Core tests were rushed into place too fast, without adequate preparation of teachers and students. But critics of the state’s education policies, including parent boycott leaders, said the governor bears much of the responsibility for controversy surrounding teacher evaluations.

“Bottom line is that, the whole body of law that penalizes districts that don’t adopt harsher evaluation plans was pushed through the legislature by Gov. Cuomo and is flawed,” said Lisa Rudley, a Westchester County parent and founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a group opposed to the state’s current tests. “We need to go back to the drawing board.”

At Risk

  • 103 out of 124 LI school districts have yet to submit plans to the State Education Department
  • 13 local districts have obtained plan endorsement
  • 8 districts have submitted plans for review
  • Plans are due by June 30 to be considered before Sept. 1 state approval deadline
  • Failure to comply results in fines as much as $300 million in Nassau and Suffolk and $2 billion statewide

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