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At Regents Meeting, a Protest Over School Improvement Grants

Monday, January 09, 2012 - 03:44 PM

ALBANY -- Last week, New York State’s education commissioner, John B. King Jr., used perhaps the only leverage he has to compel school districts and their unions to agree on the parameters of an evaluation system for teachers and principals assigned to struggling schools: He shut off the federal grants that were meant to improve them.

On Monday, as Dr. King sat on a Board of Regents meeting inside the Education Department offices here, just across from the state’s Capitol, protesters convened on the steps outside to decry his decision.

The gathering was noticeable not because of its size -- there were perhaps 20 people attending -- but because it brought together two sides whose disagreements presumably were to blame for the grants’ suspension: school officials and teachers’ union representatives.

Richard C. Iannuzzi, the president of the state’s teachers’ union, got things started by calling Dr. King a “bully.” The Albany schools superintendent, Raymond Coluciello, took a more pragmatic approach, warning that 13 teachers would get layoff notices if the district does not continue to get the grant money.

Mr. Iannuzzi emphasized the “collaborative effort” by unions and school officials whose districts had lost access to the federal money. “They were at the table on December 31,” he said, “and they were back at the table on January 1.” But there was one exception, he said. “In New York City,” Mr. Iannuzzi said, “there clearly came a point where there was a separation.”

Negotiations between New York City officials and the United Federation of Teachers collapsed two days before Dec. 31, the deadline for the 10 districts receiving the grants to commit to an evaluation system. The city’s schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, said last week that there seemed to be no chance for a resolution. On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo rejected the union’s call to intervene.

“I’m not going to go between Mayor Bloomberg and the U.F.T.,” Mr. Cuomo said in an interview by the Albany radio station Talk 1300 AM.

The city stands to lose $60 million in grant money, which 33 of its worst-performing schools had been counting on to pay for books, computers, after-school programs and the costs of extending the school day. The funding, known as school improvement grants, amounts to about $100 million statewide.

In an interview, Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the Board of Regents, representing Buffalo and other school districts in western New York, said he supported Dr. King’s decision to suspend the grants.

“It was a useful tool to indicate to the school boards, the superintendents and the union leaders that this is a serious matter,” Mr. Bennett said.

The districts’ failure to put evaluation systems in place for their struggling schools before the deadline could be a sign of bigger problems ahead. They were meant to serve as models for similar systems that must be adopted by public schools across the state as part of the federal Race to the Top program, which gave New York $700 million in education aid.

Unlike the grants, the Race to the Top program does not assign a deadline by which districts must have an evaluation system in place. But the federal government has been tracking states’ progress in fulfilling the promises they made in their applications. It could eventually withdraw the money from states that do not fulfill expectations. Hawaii, which has been unable so far to get its teachers’ union to agree to evaluations, has already been put on notice.

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