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Commissioner: Why all students have to be counted on teacher evals

Buffalo has been embroiled in a raging debate over teacher evaluations for months now.

What sparked the whole thing was the question over whether the performance of chronically absent students should be counted toward a teacher's evaluation.

In news stories, online discussions, radio shows, Facebook conversations, Twitter exchanges and more, plenty of people have weighed in.

We've heard from individual teachers. From the teachers union. From parents. From district officials.

John King at ed boardOne person, though, has been conspicuously silent on the issue: state Education Commissioner John King.

He's the guy who made the decision that all students had to be counted, regardless of attendance.

Yet all the while the debate raged on in Buffalo, King consistently declined to talk about it.

It seemed to me if this was a central piece of his plan for teacher evaluations, he would be interested in explaining to the community why it was so important.

But he would not comment for news stories.

He would not participate in a live chat on the topic, so that he could answer reader comments directly.

The bottom line was that he just wouldn't go on record discussing the issue. Instead, King -- through a spokesman -- cited concerns about the possibility of the Buffalo Teachers Federation pursuing litigation.

That changed last week.

On Friday, King finally answered my question: Why is he requiring that all students' performance be counted toward teacher evaluations?

Here is his answer, in its entirety:

On the issue of attendance, it's very clear. I believe that every student is entitled to an excellent education. Any policy that would render students invisible is not acceptable -- there have been proposals that would render the majority of students in a building invisible, proposals that would render the majority of students in a subgroup invisible.

While I accept that attendance is not solely the responsibility of educators, I reject the notion that educators do not contribute to student attendance.

I ran a school. I was a principal of a school in a very high-needs community. [King was founder and principal of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston.] We had systematic strategies to ensure students came to school. One was academic engagement, making sure students are learning and excited about learning. Two was reaching out to students' families and engaging them with the work that's going on in school, showing them why school matters for their children's future. But also being incredibly persistent about attendance. I would call relentlessly, go to students' homes -- do whatever it took to make sure that families saw the importance of having children come to school.

What we have to be careful of is that in this discourse about teacher evaluations, that we do not engage in a culture of blaming -- whether it's a blaming of educators or a blaming of parents. We are all adults responsible for all of the students.

The bottom line is, all students need to count. All students need their teachers to take responsibility for them.

As a kid, after my mom passed away, when my dad was incredibly ill, my fourth-grade teacher could have written me off. He could have said, 'Well, John's from a family where he only has one parent. That parent's very sick, and he's an African American-Latino kid from Brooklyn -- what chance does he have? But he didn't do that. He took responsibility every day to make school a place where I wanted to be. And I believe every child is entitled to that.

King, it's worth noting, told me he would be willing to do a live online chat about teacher evaluations in a couple of weeks. If you ask me, it's several weeks too late -- but I suppose it's better late than never. I'll keep you posted once we set a time and day for the chat.

In the meantime, check back here tomorrow, when we look at some of the other things King had to say regarding teacher evaluations.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of Buffalo schools hearing in Albany

Join me at 1 p.m. for live coverage of the district's hearing at the state Education Department in Albany.

Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon, CFO Barb Smith, general counsel Chris Putrino and Associate Superintendent Debra Sykes will argue the legality of the state's decision to suspend $5.6 million in federal improvement grants for six schools.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of School Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.: update on teacher evals

Join me here for a live blog at 5:30 p.m., when the School Board convenes the public portion of the meeting.

Or get highlights tonight on Twitter -- @MaryPasciak.

- Mary Pasciak

National news features Buffalo's teacher eval debacle

Fox News aired a segment today about the Buffalo schools' failure to submit an acceptable teacher eval agreement. Their take on it: Democratic governor, Democratic lawmakers joining parents and community leaders to take on the union.

- Mary Pasciak

Parent leader Sam Radford at Buffalo News editorial board

We're going to try something a little different today.

I'll be tweeting excerpts from Sam Radford's noon meeting with the Buffalo News editorial board. You can follow on Twitter, @MaryPasciak, or check it out here -- we have a live chat set up, pulling in my tweets.

I won't be able to take reader comments like I usually do during a live chat, because of the different format today -- but I'll be live blogging the school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, and will welcome all your comments and questions then!

Will Groundhog Day finally end in Buffalo? Teacher eval deadline looms -- again

Teacher evaluations are starting to approach Peace Bridge proportions here in Buffalo.

Peace BridgeThe issue has been going round and round for months now -- and an agreement almost seems to be getting more elusive the longer it goes on.

Teachers complain that the state Education Department keeps finding new things to find flaws with in the district's evaluation agreement.

The state Education Department complains that the district keeps inserting new things that are problematic into the agreement.

District officials complain that they're caught in the middle of State Ed and the union.

Community pressure for a resolution is building.

And the deadline keeps getting pushed farther and farther away.

After the state suspended $5.6 million in federal grants to Buffalo in January, the district got to work trying to get its teacher and principal evaluation agreements up to snuff, and officials scheduled a hearing with the state Education Department on Feb. 22.

It's a little confusing, but the idea, per state regulations, is that the district has until four days prior to the hearing to submit its final effort at an evaluation agreement the state will approve. (Although for some reason, in the latest rescheduling, the state gave Buffalo until two days prior to the hearing to submit an agreement.) If the state doesn't approve the submitted agreement, then the district proceeds to the hearing, when district officials have the chance to challenge the legality of the state suspending the funds.

Well, that Feb. 22 hearing got rescheduled to March 22. Under state regulations, the district had to have its hearing no later than March 23.

No matter.

That hearing got rescheduled again, to March 29.

And then again, to April 4.

And now again, to April 26.

Yep, that's right. Four times. The hearing has been rescheduled four times already. So if it seems like this thing has been dragging on for quite some time, that's because it has.

So the question on everyone's mind is: Will it get rescheduled again?

It seems like the answer this time is no.

In one of the most recent letters to the district from State Ed, Associate Commissioner Anita M. Murphy said that if the district fails to get Rumore's signature by 5 p.m. today, "the hearing will proceed as scheduled" on Thursday.

Dixon said she does not plan to request an adjournment.

"At this point the letter makes it sound like it's not even an option," she said. "The only way I would ask for an adjournment would be if it were on the advice of the state Education Department itself."

Of course, anything is possible.

I asked State Ed spokesman Jonathan Burman if there was any chance the hearing would be postponed again. "We just can't answer that at this point," he told me.

Would there be any benefit to delaying the hearing yet again?

Well, I was out of town last week (at the Kiplinger Fellowship in Public Affairs Journalism, at Ohio State) so I wasn't here when the union's council of delegates voted overwhelmingly to reject the agreement. But I was in touch with some of the delegates immediately after the vote.

What they told me was that it's not as if there's a particular element of the evaluation agreement that teachers are objecting to -- something that could be worked out, if only they had a few more days.

"Most teachers believe the way money is being spent will not change anything -- and in some cases, the money has made things worse -- such as removing veteran principals and replacing them with new, inexperienced principals," one delegate told me.

"Many teachers feel State Ed created this quagmire we find ourselves in now. People who believe money will solve this problem unfortunately are not in the trenchees and frankly do not understand the real issues. We already spend more money per pupil than any other state in the country."

Another delegate told me that teachers at the six persistently lowest achieving schools -- the schools that lost the $5.6 million -- did not support the evaluation plan.

"They were not on board, and wanted everyone's support," that delegate told me.

Rumore at BTFThe union president, Phil Rumore, told me on Monday there is no way he will sign the agreement as it stands.

He no longer cited the concerns he raised last week -- related to the state's willingness to approve the agreement and a chart used for scoring high school teachers -- but raised other concerns on Monday.

"There are still major concerns regarding how to incorporate English language learners' and special education students' standardized test scores into a teacher's evaluation," he said. "We brought that up with the district at the beginning but we were under the gun. We didn't really get to it. But it is still a major concern of teachers."

Rumore thinks the state should just release the money to Buffalo now, and give the district an extra few months to work out the details.

He's calling for the district and the union to form committees to resolve issues related to special education students and those who do not speak English. He has asked Dixon to provide teachers with release time so they can meet on school days as members of the committees; he has offered to provide meals. The agreement could be reached by August or September, he says.

The district and the union a year ago -- as part of Buffalo's application for federal school improvement grants -- agreed to implement teacher evaluations at the six schools by Dec. 31, 2011.

Rumore is suggesting, though, that the agreement for 2011-12 would not even be reached until a couple of months into 2012-13.

Rumore says that's not a problem.


"Even if we had it in place (in January) when the commissioner said it had to be in place to get the funding, it realistically wouldn't have been able to be implemented (for 2011-12) anyway," he said. "So why not say we'll give you the funding anyway if you get it in place by September?"

- Mary Pasciak

Where have the City Hall administrators gone?

Sunday's story took a look at a few issues, including an update on the number of non-union central office administrators -- down from 28 to 20.

What happened to them?

Well, in the final months of Williams' tenure, four exempts left, and their positions were left vacant.

Dixon filled two of them, appointing former Performing Arts principal Darren Brown as executive director of human resources and Nathaniel J. Kuzma as an attorney. (Two positions in human resources -- those of Faren Gault-Wilson and Kara Murphy -- have been left vacant.)

Since Dixon became interim superintendent, she eliminated four other exempt positions. One administrator -- Erin Comerford, an executive administrator -- took a job outside the district.

Mark FrazierAnne Botticelli (former associate superintendent) and Mark Frazier (pictured at left, former lead community superintendent) took lower-paying union positions within the district, Botticelli as director of curriculum and Frazier as director of special education.

Botticelli took a $48,179 pay cut to her current salary of $84,821; Frazier's $37,778 pay cut took him down to $98,222.

Aubrey Lloyd became athletic director, rather than executive director of athletics -- a $36,003 pay cut, to $78,997.

(Under former Superintendent James Williams, Mike Mogavero became athletic director after he was removed as principal at Riverside High School, per federal rules regarding school turnarounds. Williams waited to move Mogavero until mid-way into that school year, when there were no principal positions open -- so Williams had moved Lloyd up to an exempt position and moved Mogavero into that newly created central office vacancy. This school year, Mogavero became principal of The Academy, the district's alternative high school. At that point, Dixon eliminated the exempt position that had been Lloyd's, and moved him back as athletic director.)

Dixon has left her own former central office position vacant, as well as that of Frances Wilson, whom Dixon appointed chief academic officer.


And then there were a few exempts whose contracts were scheduled to end over the past several months -- but they ended up with short-term contract extensions.

Among them was the six-month contract extension that Dixon gave to Elena Cala, special assistant to the superintendent (pictured at right). Cala's contract was due to expire in March.

Under Williams, Cala, along with Comerford, seemed often to be within a few paces of the superintendent, accompanying him to ribbon-cuttings, meetings and any other engagements that came up -- and, often, keeping the media away. Since Dixon took over, Cala has adopted a decidedly less confrontational, more collaborative approach.

- Mary Pasciak


About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |