Long Island school officials were stunned to learn last week that the state Education Department might not meet its own goal for approving districts' teacher and principal evaluation plans.
All of New York's 715 public school districts, under an agreement forged by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators, are supposed to have state-approved plans in place by Jan. 17 or risk the loss of additional state aid to be given out later this school year.
Education Department officials said last week that just 75 districts' draft plans have been approved of 295 submitted, and review of another 75 is under way. Staffers are working weeks without a day off to complete the task, and the department is hiring more people to help.
Maureen Bright, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and superintendent of Hicksville schools, said she and other local education officials were "shocked" to learn the state doesn't have enough people to process the lengthy applications.
"It was a tremendous effort to make this happen and we did," Bright said of districts' work to send in complex evaluation plans, which run dozens of pages. "It's disappointing that SED couldn't have had the staff in place to review these plans."
State workers need four to six weeks to review and approve each application, which in effect moves districts' submission deadline to early December. State officials said they'd like to receive draft plans sooner rather then be inundated with hundreds at once.
Bright and other Long Island officials said that even if the state doesn't approve districts' plans by Jan. 17, school officials would implement them anyway to comply with federal and state guidelines. "We don't really have an option," she said.
The evaluation plans are tied to other, simultaneous reforms, she said, including formation of "student learning objectives," which outline how student growth can be measured on subjects not covered by state tests.
"We don't know if it is going to work," he said. "It takes a tremendous amount of resources, time and effort with no promise that it is going to make things better."
School officials have long complained that the new evaluation protocol -- which for the first time ties teacher and principal ratings to student performance -- was rushed into place.
Setting up evaluation systems in districts statewide was key to the state winning $700 million in federal Race To The Top funds.
"While no one will deny the importance of evaluations and accountability, this provides additional evidence that they are constructing timelines in an effort to get things done as opposed to getting things right," said Jim Polansky, superintendent of the Huntington school district.
Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, said last week that districts must submit their plans as soon as possible. "We can't be in a position where people are delaying for the sake of obfuscating what is really going on," she said.
Local school officials said they had not heard of any district intentionally withholding its draft plan.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the process might move faster now that the state has selected some plans as models, which other districts might use to guide their work.
Alan Groveman, superintendent of Connetquot schools, said districts are working as hard as they can to get their plans to the state. He said, too, that he isn't surprised to learn of the Education Department's time crunch.
"I guess we are used to being held to standards the state doesn't keep for itself," he said.
James McKenna, head of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said it took months for districts to create their plans, so it's not surprising it would take months for the state to review them. "Everybody went into this not knowing what it was going to look like at the other end," he said.