Deadline to submit evaluation plans may threaten state aid

James Galloway

North Shore school districts could lose a combined $4.1 million in state aid if they fail to meet a Nov. 15 deadline for the state to approve their teacher evaluation plans — a deadline most school officials call unrealistic.

The State Education Department continues to solidify the evaluation criteria laid out by lawmakers in the state budget, but any changes would require the okay of districts’ teachers unions. And with summer vacation approaching, administrators worry the deadline provides schools next to no time to negotiate.

“[The deadline is] ludicrous, completely out of touch with the way public schools work,” said Great Neck Superintendent Tom Dolan, whose district could lose $460,000. “The teachers aren’t here for the summer — how would we negotiate with them?”

School districts would likely need to submit their individual plans by as early as the beginning of September to meet the deadline and provide the state time to review and approve the plans. The State Education Department is unlikely to finalize the criteria until mid to late June, however.                                           

The money on the line — restorations of funds from the Gap Elimination Adjustment — range from $121,000 for East Williston to $1.6 million for Sewanhaka. If they fail to meet the deadline, Roslyn could lose $228,000, Manhasset could lose $227,000, Port Washington could lose $388,000 and New Hyde Park-Garden City Park could lose $201,000.

Some districts, including Herricks and Mineola, decided against including the aid in their budget proposals, a luxury not all districts can afford, Mineola Superintendent Michael Nagler said. The aid would instead be treated as revenue in the next fiscal year.

The fixed deadline, Nagler said, also puts administrators at a disadvantage when negotiating with teachers, noting the irony that districts may need to pay teachers to come in over the summer to negotiate their contracts.

“We’re not including what I’m calling the hostage money,” said Nagler, whose district would lose $342,000. “While I have every intention of filing [the evaluation plans] on time, I am concerned that the negotiation that’s involved with that is one-sided if we have the money in the budget.”

In response to the school districts’ concerns, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has directed the education department to find an administrative solution to extend the deadline, focusing her attention on a clause in the legislation that allows the deadline to be pushed back for districts that can prove “hardship” in complying.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from administrators, teachers and school boards across the state. They’re concerned about the very tight time frame, and they’re right,” Tisch said in a statement. “And I’m worried about the fiscal implications for districts that can’t meet the deadline. Students should not be denied resources because of adult disagreements.” 

Regent Roger Tilles, who represents Nassau and Suffolk, said the board would look to define hardship as broadly as possible but is limited by the legislation in how far it can go.

“Don’t know yet what we can do in the definition, but I will be trying to define it to be as flexible as we can and the other Regents will also,” Tilles said. “If it were up to me, I would define hardship as meeting the deadline, which is an unrealistic deadline.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred Blank Slate Media to a recent quote by the governor in which he said the hardship extension sounds reasonable as long as it is “the exception and not the rule.”

The education department has yet to release information to districts on how to apply for the hardship extension, which would push the deadline to September 2016.

“I think everybody is going to apply for it, but what position they take is a whole different story,” Nagler said. “I’m most likely going to apply, whether or not they accept me as a hardship is a different story.”

Legislators, including state Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) have supported dropping the Nov. 15 deadline altogether, saying the legislative wording gives the regents the authority to do so through the hardship clause.

Herricks Superintendent of Schools John Bierwirth, who is testifying on behalf of the superintendents association, said the state should formulate a default plan that would automatically go into place if districts could not agree prior to the deadline.

“We think that instead of penalizing students because adults can’t agree, the way to do this is to say that there should be a state devised default plan which would be automatically implemented if the adults can’t agree on what the terms should be,” said Bierwirth, whose district would lose $532,000. “We did not think the students should be penalized.”

Bierwirth said that in the past Herricks could prepare for evaluation overhauls ahead of time, but this year too much remains up in the air.

“There’s nothing definitive on a lot of critical issues,” he said. “A lot of critical issues are under rather contentious discussions.”

Carlo Prinzo, the vice president of the Manhasset Board of Education, said the mandated changes put districts in a position of uncertainty.

“I’m starting to feel like there’s a lot of strings connected to state aid all of a sudden,” he said. “I’m not sure that we as a community want those strings.”

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