Niagara Gazette — The New York State Education Department has given the go-ahead to three local school districts to conduct teacher evaluations.
Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield and Niagara Falls have all received department Commissioner John B. King's seal of approval to implement Annual Professional Performance Reviews for the 2012-13 school year.
"This is a big thing for the school district," Niagara-Wheatfield Interim Superintendent James Knowles said during the district's school board meeting Wednesday. "If this plan wouldn't have been approved, it would have been devastating to this school district. But we're operating now. We're moving forward with it."
"Thanks to teamwork on the part of our negotiating team, the Niagara Falls Teachers Union and our administrators union, we are confident that we have fair plans in place," Falls Superintendent Cynthia Bianco said. "We feel certain that these plans will benefit educators and, ultimately, students."
APPR is designed to be a formulaic system which evaluates the effectiveness of teachers by examining not just in-class work, but also student performance on state exams and other, negotiated standards.
Negotiated is the key to the process. Each of the districts sat down with their two top bargaining units – teachers and principals – to design plans based on their specific standards.
Once each district submitted their plans, NYSED evaluated them and sent back lists of corrections they felt needed to be addressed. Lew-Port Superintendent Christopher Roser said its plan came with nine pages of corrections, though the number is a bit misleading.
"It seems like a lot, but it really isn't," he said. "In your plans, you repeat things, like names of tests. The state marks each individual correction, so it's the same corrections over again. So nine pages might actually be nine or 10 items."
APPR, despite local compliance, is still a work in progress elsewhere throughout the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stuck with a Jan. 17 deadline for approval of the plans, which are required to receive an extra 4 percent in funding through the federal Race to the Top initiative.
Roser said his district is receiving an additional $135,000 in state aid, a figure which doesn't seem like a lot but is important considering the shoestring budgets each district operates under.
Now that the plans are approved, it's time for the districts to begin implementing them. Kevin Jaruszewski, president of Lew-Port United Teachers, said some of his members have already begun preparation for in-class evaluations, including sit-downs with evaluators to explain what will happen during observations.
But Lew-Port already did this, long before the state decided to streamline all evaluations, he said.
"This is what we've been doing," Jaruszewski said. "The only change is the state's pushing us for more and more paperwork. But we know these are things, as professionals, we've already been doing.
"Now we just have to work out the kinks, because the state keeps changing things. We keep doing what we do and the state just keeps throwing more lingo and more things at us."
Lew-Port isn't the only district which had evaluations in place before implementing APPR. In fact, each of the three had evaluations in some form. What has changed is the inclusion of student test scores in the grading process.
But is the process flawed? All three local union representatives have expressed issues with the state's insistence of both including student evaluations and rushing districts to pass evaluation plans.
"The plans and the way the legislation was written from state ... is flawed," Niagara Falls Teachers President Ed Ceccato said. "There was a rush to implement the plans, after the state dangled the financial carrot in terms of increases in state aid. But it's an unrealistic system with its focus too heavy on testing. Especially at the elementary level ... which leads to a loss of instruction time."
In Niagara-Wheatfield, union President Kevin Rustowicz said he hopes the time spent out of the classroom and the money spent getting a plan in place will be worth the money the district receives from NYSED.
His district just endured massive cuts to teaching staff after its 2010-11 audit revealed a massive budget hole some estimated to be more than $10 million. The district's former superintendent, Carl Militello, retired amid the fallout and a proposed 2012-13 budget calling for a 9.9 percent increase to the tax levy was defeated by voters in May.
This next budget season doesn't appear to be forecasting any better with expected double-digit increases in the percentage paid to retired employee pensions expected, while School Board officials said they won't attempt to exceed the state's property tax cap for a second year in a row.
"In Wheatfield, every penny counts," he said. "Just the process of taking teachers out of the classroom, of negotiating the deal, takes time away from instruction. But we made it work. I just hope it's worth the money the school district is supposed to receive."NIA Knowles mug 122312 James Knowles N-W superintendent