By FERNANDA SANTOS
Published in The New York Times, December 30, 2011
Negotiations between New York City’s Education Department and union officials over a new evaluation system for teachers and principals broke down on Friday, jeopardizing roughly $60 million in federal grants designated to help 33 struggling schools across the city.
The city’s schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, informed the state’s education commissioner, John B. King Jr., of the impasse in an e-mail on Friday, less than an hour after two deputy chancellors walked out of a meeting at the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers in Lower Manhattan.
Soon after that, city officials canceled a scheduled meeting with representatives from the principals’ union, which the union’s president, Ernest A. Logan, said would have been their third negotiating session on the topic.
In a statement, Dr. King said he was left with no choice but to suspend the grants because the city had promised in its application to redraw the schools’ evaluation systems.
“Sadly,” he said, “the adults in charge of the city’s schools have let the students down.”
The federal money, known as school improvement grants, offered the schools a lifeline of sorts: the grants would spare them from being shuttered and give them a last chance to bolster graduation rates and standardized test scores.
Earlier this week, Dr. King put New York City and nine other school districts receiving the federal grants in New York on notice, threatening to withhold the money if the districts failed to commit to an evaluation system by Saturday, the deadline outlined in the grants. By Friday, six of the districts — Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Poughkeepsie, Schenectady and Roosevelt — had turned in their plans. Besides New York City, the districts that had yet to do so were Yonkers, Albany and Greenburgh.
“The city and the unions have known about this deadline for many months, but there’s no evidence of any real progress,” Dr. King said.
The city and the United Federation of Teachers began their discussions five months ago, after agreeing in principle to overhaul the process to judge teachers in the struggling schools. It was to serve as a model for a statewide teacher evaluation system, which the Legislature enacted to meet the requirements of the broader federal grant competition known as Race to the Top.
All along, though, the sides have struggled to reconcile differences over certain sticking points: the type of help poorly rated teachers would get to improve their performance, and the appeals process available to teachers facing termination after receiving poor ratings two years in a row.
On Friday, the president of the teachers’ union, Michael Mulgrew, criticized the way appeals had been handled since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of the schools about a decade ago, saying the process was more focused on “getting rid of teachers.” As it stands, principals are asked to give teachers who work for them one of two ratings: satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Teachers who are deemed unsatisfactory can contest the rating in court. More often than not, the ratings are upheld.
Mr. Mulgrew asked the city to let independent reviewers rule on the appeals. He said some principals had used the ratings as a means of punishing teachers with whom they had clashed, and he cited several examples, including the case of a Bronx principal who doled out unsatisfactory ratings to teachers whom she wanted out of her school.
“We want a fair process,” Mr. Mulgrew said.
Mr. Walcott, in his letter to Dr. King, rejected the union’s appeals proposal, saying it was “unsurprising” that the majority of the unsatisfactory ratings were upheld because less than 2 percent of all teachers receive them.
In a subsequent statement, he added, “The U.F.T. is more interested in protecting the worst-performing teachers than in implementing a meaningful teacher evaluation system that will benefit our students.”
In suspending the grants, the state used the only leverage it has to compel the city to stick to the commitments it made when applying for the money. Dr. King cannot unilaterally cancel the grants, however: there must be a hearing, so there is still time for some kind of agreement to be reached.