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Scores of LI educators, parents urge unlinking budget and reforms

Teachers, parents, and school administrators rally against what

Teachers, parents, and school administrators rally against what they view as "over-testing" and many of the education proposals advanced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, at Levittown Hall in Hicksville, March 16, 2015. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Dozens of Long Island school superintendents, administrators and parent organizations are urging legislators to untangle education reform from the state budget process, saying the two should not be considered together.

"We have to hit the pause button," David Gamberg, superintendent of the Southold school district, said Monday. "The budget should not be tied to this type of serious discussion."

Nearly 70 people signed a letter to lawmakers saying a "one-size-fits-all" approach won't address needs at either struggling schools or those with strong academic programs. The missive comes amid political wrangling among Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators over budget, education, ethics and other issues.

The governor's model of reform, which focuses on accountability above all, Gamberg said, is faulty. He pointed to a number of factors that influence a child's academic performance, including poverty, nutrition and access to books.

"Do not rush to judgment and adopt and implement something that is fundamentally wrong," he said.

Cuomo wants to increase the percentage of a teacher's job rating that is tied to student performance to 50 percent, make it easier to fire incompetent teachers and bring in outsiders to evaluate educators.

"We believe that a strong teacher evaluation system can apply to all districts, no matter where the district is or the composition of its student body," Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever said in a statement. "Further, we believe that no matter how effective a teacher may be, there is always room for him or her to improve their skills."

But William Johnson, Rockville Centre's school superintendent, said the wrong people are making decisions about what happens in local schools.

"Push back the reform agenda to the state Education Department, where it belongs," he said, adding that the governor "doesn't understand the complexities of life in a classroom."

The teacher evaluation system, pushed by the federal government and embraced by the state, is just one example of a needlessly complex system that doesn't work as well as the one that came before it, which was based on an ongoing conversation between teachers and principals, Johnson said.

Assigning a teacher a number is no way to improve education, he said.

"I use numbers to reform the system, not the teacher," he said. "I use my ability to communicate and understand the classroom environment to help the teacher improve."

Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford schools, said Cuomo has demonized teachers and is trying to make state aid to districts contingent upon reforms. "That's not in the best interest of kids," he said.

David Flatley, superintendent of Carle Place schools, said he agrees with the governor that it takes too long to fire tenured teachers who fail to serve their students, but he disagrees with the idea of bringing outsiders into local schools to evaluate them. "That is something that seems so counterintuitive to me," he said.

East Moriches superintendent Charles Russo was not among those who signed the letter. His district has embraced some of the state's reforms, including adoption of Common Core academic standards.

While he takes issue with some elements of the teacher evaluation system, he believes letter-writing and rallies are not the answer. Instead, he's spoken directly with his local representatives. "I would rather dialogue with folks," Russo said.

But Steve Cohen, superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River school district, said he hopes the letter helps drive policy so districts can protect and preserve all they are doing well.

The reform model, he said, is "so single-minded it will destroy what's good" about local schools.

Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country district, said she wishes the state would task educators and community leaders to come up with reforms themselves.

"Hold superintendents and stakeholders to a timeline to come up with different recommendations," she said. "It wouldn't have to take five or six years. Pull together a commission and give us a time period, and we will get to you a proposal that will work."

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