Weeks before a state deadline for the city and teachers union to agree on new teacher evaluations, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has thrown a major wrench into negotiations.

Mulgrew said today that he is halting talks about the evaluations until the Department of Education presents an implementation plan that he approves. The plan, he said, would have to include “a concrete plan” for how and when educators are trained on whatever system is adopted.

The announcement came in an angry letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott this afternoon that Mulgrew said was prompted by a spate of complaints from teachers about surprising and intimidating observations. A top union offiical, Michael Mendel, registered alarm about the complaints in his own scathing letter to Walcott earlier this week.

The city and union had agreed to have some schools practice conducting observations of the type likely to be required in new evaluations. But Mendel said the reports came from schools beyond the pilot program and described practices that were not supposed to happen but could potentially be part of a new evaluation system, such as unannounced observations.

“How is it possible to start implementing a system that we haven’t agreed on?” Mulgrew said in an interview today. Doing so, he said, “breaks every piece of good-faith etiquette in negotiations.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman disputed the UFT’s accusation that the department had changed its approach to preparing for new evaluations. All of the observations being done right now conform to guidelines that the city and union set out jointly for a teacher evaluation pilot program that has been in operation for years, according to the spokeswoman.

But, citing dozens of complaints from teachers, Mendel charged that teams of administrators had begun descending on classrooms without warning and giving teachers stern feedback without discussing the reason for their visit, in violation of the pilot program’s rules. The visits were leaving teachers “feeling intimidated, harassed, scared, put off” and “turning them against the evaluation system,” he said.

Mulgrew’s announcement comes amid growing criticism from within the union of his handling of the evaluations issue. Last week, UFT leaders rejected a public call by some teachers to put any evaluation deal to a vote of the union’s membership.

It also comes after weeks of both city and union officials characterizing their negotiations as productive. Both sides are under pressure to reach a deal by Jan. 17, when any district that does not have a new evaluation system in place will lose state funding under a decree of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Walcott had said he wanted to reach a deal on teacher evaluations by Dec. 21 so state officials would have time to review and approve the agreement before Cuomo’s deadline. Mulgrew called that deadline “bogus” and his announcement today appears to ensure that no deal will happen before then.

But Mulgrew said today that as long as talks start soon, there is enough time to cover both evaluations and their implementation before the Jan. 17 deadline set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (School districts that have not agreed with their unions on new evaluations by then will risk losing an increase in state school aid.) He said Walcott did not immediately respond about setting a time to discuss implementation.

Making an implementation plan “would normally be done in negotiations anyway,” Mulgrew said. “But now it has to be done right now.”

Mulgrew’s full letter to Walcott is below.

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

The Department of Education’s demonstrated inability to manage the school system correctly has led us to have serious concerns about getting anything constructive done with you. Two and half years ago the state decided to change this year’s standardized tests to the Common Core standards and since then you have done nothing to create a curriculum based on the Common Core. You have now left teachers in a horrendous situation where they are scrambling to try to get material appropriate for these new tests to teach their children.

Inevitably, this will lead to a drop in standardized test scores — which I know once again you will try to blame on the teachers because you will not take responsibility for your incompetence. Despite all of this and many other examples, the teachers in our schools have worked through Hurricane Sandy and many other challenges to serve the children in our care, even as the union has continued to try to negotiate a new evaluation system.

We were recently informed by our members in the schools that you have launched a new program, the Teacher Effectiveness Intensive Three Week Cycle, without any planning or proper training for the schools. Charlotte Danielson’s rubric requires intensive training in order for it to be used correctly, but you have refused to certify or intensely train people so that they can properly use this tool. Your decision to launch this new program without a plan that would lead to its successful implementation is mind-boggling to us.

Given this history, at this time we will only meet with you to discuss a planning and roll-out process for the new evaluation system — in case we ever get to such an agreement. We understand that an evaluation system that will create a constructive practice in each school that will enhance instruction and benefit our over 1.1 million students is a critical opportunity. An evaluation system that will change the culture of our schools is something that the UFT has been working on for over three years. We hope that you will not be party to wasting such an important opportunity. We await your communication to set up such a meeting on the planning and roll-out process for the benefit of our children and our schools.

Sincerely,
Michael Mulgrew

Michael Mulgrew
UFT President