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Editorial: Teacher evaluations usually not 'unfunded'

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday.

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday. Check our listings of delayed openings, closures and cancellations to see what's in store for Friday. Credit: Daniel Brennan

School districts across the state and Long Island are complaining that the new evaluation system for teachers and principals is creating a fiscal burden they can't handle. They're calling it another of the "unfunded state mandates" administrators complain about so often. It is a mandate, but it's not unfunded, or expensive, and the whining says more about the education establishment than the costs.

This year total state spending was slated to go down a bit, but state aid to schools increased almost 4 percent, to about $20 billion.

Consider the Middle Country School District: According to a Newsday news story, the superintendent says the $188,000 spent by the district so far on the new evaluation system will keep it from hiring the teachers it needs. But funding from the state to Middle Country increased by more than $4 million this year, to about $75 million.

In the Connetquot district, the superintendent says dozens of hours and thousands of dollars have been spent negotiating the evaluation system with its union, in addition to $42,000 spent implementing the system. But Connetquot got a $1.2-million increase in state funding this year, bringing the total it receives to $43 million annually.

Some districts will spend more on the new evaluation process than their stipends from the state increase this year. They are mostly tiny districts and affluent ones. But a broad majority of districts, on Long Island and across the state, are receiving state funding increases far in excess of what they will spend on the evaluation system. To be sure, districts are facing financial challenges, thanks to the property tax cap and spiraling pension and benefits expenses. In addition, state aid to schools is bouncing back, but it's still lower for more than 80 percent of the state's districts than at its high, in 2008.

The state sends a lot of money to school districts, and in that sense, none of its mandates are unfunded. And the costs of implementing this evaluation system aren't enough to justify the kinds of cuts to instruction administrators are threatening. In addition, many districts are receiving federal Race to the Top grants, to help defray some of the costs. And some of the money districts are spending, on computer programs and computer tablets to be used in the evaluation process, weren't mandated by the state and aren't strictly necessary.

The state Education Department says its website contains many evaluation plans that districts should be able to adopt and implement without creating additional costs. Other experts argue that's not quite true, and liken using a prefab Education Department evaluation system to using a form-letter prenuptial agreement: Both have to be adapted at least somewhat to satisfy the involved parties.

But assuming -- or hoping -- districts had rigorous evaluation protocols already in place, the new system should also create a savings by letting districts drop their old ones. It's certainly reasonable to believe the new systems may cost a little more; it's just not reasonable to argue the expense is unfunded, or sizable in relation to district budgets.

In most cases, district complaints about the expense of the new teacher evaluation system aren't justified, and their tendency to attack evaluations at every turn is getting tiresome.