State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa said a...

State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa said a plan to allow school districts to waive teacher and principal evaluations by independent observers provides flexibility in the evaluation process. Credit: Hans Pennink

The state Board of Regents has taken “emergency action” to allow school districts to waive a legal requirement that teachers and principals be evaluated by independent observers if the rule poses a “hardship” to the districts.

“School districts have been working very hard to comply with the various versions of the APPR [annual professional performance review] law enacted by the Legislature and the Governor over the past few years,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa said in a news release after a Tuesday board meeting. “Today we are providing school districts with more flexibility to negotiate and implement their evaluation plans. Ensuring state aid for all our schools is too important not to act.”

The amendment to education law allows school districts and BOCES to avoid subjecting some of their teachers and principals to the independent evaluator requirement starting in the 2016-2017 school year, though those excused school district employees would still be subject to two observations by an evaluator who has been trained by the district.

“Such action is necessary for the preservation of the general welfare in order to immediately adopt revisions to the proposed amendment to provide districts with notice of the ability to obtain a hardship waiver in an effort to provide additional flexibility to school districts when negotiating their annual professional performance review plans for the 2016-2017 school year,” read the recommendation to the Board of Regents, which adopted the measure.

Districts that find that the requirement for an independent evaluator creates an “undue burden” may invoke the hardship waiver if compliance would pose a financial burden; the district lacks professionally trained staff to comply; the district has a large number of teachers and principals; or compliance could compromise safety or management.

The change revises state Education Department regulations created to comply with legislation Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law in April 2015 to establish a new system to evaluate teachers and principals. Violation of the requirement has severe consequences: Districts must comply with the law by Sept. 1 in order to receive their state aid increases.

The Regents board opted for “emergency action” at its Tuesday meeting because if it had acted to adopt the waiver as a non-emergency measure, its implementation would take place after the Sept. 1 deadline.

However, in order for districts and BOCES to use the waiver, teachers and principals who could be excused from the requirement under the amendment must have annual professional performance reviews in the 2015-2016 year as “highly effective,” “effective” or “developing,” while those who have been deemed “ineffective” in the reviews must still submit to scrutiny by the independent evaluator.

The change comes as districts struggle to submit to Albany new teacher evaluation plans, which are due June 30. Only a relative handful — one-fifth of Long Island’s 124 school districts — have submitted their plans.

Districts that fail to submit those plans in a timely fashion do so at their own financial peril: Late submissions could result in fines totaling as much as $300 million in Nassau and Suffolk counties and $2 billion statewide as penalties are equivalent to two years’ worth of increases in state aid.

The amendment augments regulations adopted by the Regents in September 2015 that provide hardship waivers to rural and single-building districts.

Roger Tilles, a Board of Regents member who represents Long Island, said about 1 percent of teachers statewide, and even a smaller figure in Nassau and Suffolk, have earned an “ineffective” rating, so very few outside evaluators would be necessary.

In addition, Tilles said, the cost of hiring outside evaluators could hurt districts as they struggle to retain quality programs and staff while subject to the state-imposed school tax cap.

“I think it’s a very reasonable amendment that gives flexibility to districts,” he said. “School districts across the board were complaining that with the tax cap they can’t raise more money. This would be a very expensive proposition.”

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