ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo found himself in a familiar situation today: Defending his teacher evaluation law against yet another snag.

The latest issue is the revelation, reported Monday by the Buffalo News, that Buffalo promised its teachers union not to move to fire any teacher based on this year’s evaluations. State law allows — but does not require — districts to begin termination proceedings for any teacher who receives two straight “ineffective” ratings. But state education officials have argued the deal has no legal grounds since it wasn’t submitted to or approved by the state.

In a radio interview today, Cuomo called the side deal, struck at the same time as Buffalo and its union agreed on a new teacher evaluation system in January, “very close to legal and ethical fraud.”

Buffalo is the state’s second-largest city. The biggest, New York City, has not yet adopted new teacher evaluations at all. The city has until May 31 to submit its own negotiated deal; after that the state is mandated by law to impose a plan.

The setbacks represent a striking blow to Cuomo’s efforts to make teacher evaluation a signature education achievement in his first term. He has lobbied the Board of Regents to give test scores a larger role in evaluations and mediated labor disputes. Last year, he used his outsized power in the legislature to devise a carrot-and-stick approach that drove nearly every school district in the state to adopt new evaluations, declaring “victory” in the process.

But because Cuomo does not directly control the State Education Department, he has only limited ability to steer how education policies are implemented.

State Education Department officials have known about the deal since January and has repeatedly warned Buffalo that it risked losing state funding if it followed through with its plans to ignore two years of ineffective ratings. The department has also looked into rumors of other districts with similar side deals aimed at constraining the role of new teacher evaluations in their first year.

After the Buffalo News story was published on Monday, Cuomo decided to publicly get involved once again. Cuomo told Capitol Pressroom’s Susan Arbetter on Tuesday morning that there has been steep resistance to the new evaluations, which weigh student performance for the first time.

“I understand the anxiety and I understand the legitimate concerns,” he said. “You’re now bringing in an evaluation system for teachers who have not been evaluated before. It poses challenges to evaluate their service and the art form of their service. I understand that.”

In Buffalo, union officials apparently convinced the city that it would be unfair to use ratings generated by an evaluation system devised midyear to make high-stakes personnel decisions.

“The District understands that it would not be fair to our teachers to use this process against them during this early stage of implementation,” Superintendent Pamela Brown wrote in a memorandum of understanding with the Buffalo Teachers Federation that was struck on the same day as the city and union agreed on an evaluation plan but was not shared with the state.

Negotiations in New York City collapsed just before a state deadline in January, and the city still does not have a new evaluation system in place. But sources on both sides of the negotiating table said there had not been any proposal of a side deal to block new ratings from being used in termination proceedings. Instead, a major stumbling block had been whether to give the evaluation deal an expiration date.

Buffalo MOU by GothamSchools.org