Streams

Legislator Calls for Hearing on State Aid Suspension

Thursday, January 05, 2012 - 02:16 PM

State Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz of Brooklyn is calling for a public hearing on the state education commissioner’s decision to suspend payments on federal grants that are meant to help boost results in struggling schools in New York City and nine other New York school districts.

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Thursday, Mr. Ortiz argued that the suspension of the grants was disproportionately harmful to black and Latino students, who are the majority of the students in the schools receiving the money.

“Denying high-need school districts the requisite funds will only punish the students whose futures we are most concerned about,” wrote Mr. Ortiz, who is chairman of the Assembly’s Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, a working group of Latino legislators.

The commissioner, John B. King Jr., suspended the so-called school improvement grants on Tuesday as a way of reprimanding the districts for failing to put in place an evaluation system for the teachers and principals working in the struggling schools by Dec. 31, the deadline established by the federal government.

Dr. King’s decision took six of the districts -- Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, Roosevelt, Poughkeepsie and Buffalo -- by surprise. Each had submitted agreements signed by administrators and teachers’ union officials before the deadline, outlining plans to get their evaluation systems off the ground, and Mr. Ortiz said they were enraged to find out their money had been cut off anyway.

“Many of the districts involved refute that they missed the deadline,” he wrote.

Dr. King, however, made it clear in a statement on Tuesday that he was serious about holding the districts to the time limit, saying, “The deadline is real.” All districts could request hearings to make a case for reinstatement of their grants -- and he said the task would be easier for the six districts that turned in the plans.

No date has been set for the hearing, but in an interview Mr. Ortiz said it was among his top priorities for the legislative session that has just begun.

The evaluation systems required agreements between administrators and the unions representing teachers and principals in each of the districts. In New York City, where roughly $60 million in grant money has been benefiting 33 schools, negotiations collapsed two days before the deadline.

Education Department officials are now trying to work out a solution with the state that would not require cooperation from the United Federation of Teachers, which stood firm on its demands for changes in the way appeals are handled for teachers who receive poor ratings.

Mr. Ortiz, in an interview, said he hoped that, through the hearing, legislators might also help untangle snags in the discussion, or at least put pressure on the state to give the districts more help in resolving any lingering disputes with the unions.

“We want to get to the bottom of this and find out how we can facilitate what is needed here so we can get on with the business of offering the best education to our children,” he said.

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