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In state budget proposal, Cuomo issues evaluations ultimatum

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo slashed school aid across the state. This year, he plans to add back much of what was lost — but there’s a catch.

Districts will get the money only if they roll out controversial new teacher evaluations according to an accelerated timeline, Cuomo announced in a hotly anticipated speech in Albany today.

He also outlined a procedure by which new evaluations could be put into effect even without local unions’ agreement, which a state law passed in 2010 requires.

Cuomo kicked off the procedure today with an ultimatum: He demanded that the state teachers union, NYSUT, drop its lawsuit over the evaluations and settle on a “protocol” for new evaluations with the State Education Department within 30 days.

“If they can’t do that then we’ll do it for them,” Cuomo said in his address today. Using the state’s unusual Article 7 process, Cuomo could use a budget amendment to change the state’s teacher evaluation law — possibly by striking the requirement for districts and unions to negotiate some details locally.

For now, local districts and their unions would still have to sign off on evaluation plans even if NYSUT resolves its issues with the state. Districts that do so by Sept. 1 will be able to compete for $250 million in state funds, Cuomo said today. If they miss that deadline, they will have until Jan. 17, 2013 — a year from today — to settle on new evaluations or give up the 4 percent increase in state aid.

“The equation is simple at the end of the day: No evaluations, no money, period,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s gambit raises the stakes for districts to hash out evaluations deals. The $800,000 in school aid increases he staked on the evaluations nearly doubles the $1 billion in federal dollars already on the line. But unlike the federal funding, which must be used for a narrow set of purposes, districts could decide exactly how to deploy added state aid.

Cuomo’s move is meant to force local districts to put aside their differences on evaluations and also to divide teachers unions, which the governor has blamed for the evaluations holdup, from their supporters in the legislature. The budget must be approved by the end of March, and if legislators plan to oppose the evaluations requirement, they’ll risk holding up the entire budget.

The move won plaudits from State Education Commissioner John King, who last month cut off federal funding for struggling schools in 10 school districts, including New York City, that failed to meet a Dec. 31 evaluation deadline.

“I’m hopeful that the governor’s added leadership here will help us get implementation on track,” King said in a phone call with reporters.

It’s not clear how New York City would fit into Cuomo’s plan. The UFT, not NYSUT, is the bargaining agent here, and the union is petitioning for a formal impasse in negotiations to be declared. Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg, who lauded Cuomo’s efforts today, last week changed some of the city’s school reform plans to circumvent the union entirely.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew praised Cuomo’s negotiation deadline. He also once again blamed Bloomberg for the stalled efforts on negotiations and reiterated a call for the city to restart talks.

“There is nothing I can do about the fact that the mayor has publicly come out and said, ‘I will no longer talk to the UFT about evaluations,” Mulgrew said today at a press conference. “I am hoping now with the governor’s proposal today that will get the city back to the table to get this issue solved.”

Joe Williams, the head of Democrats for Education Reform, praised Cuomo’s leadership in a statement but said resolving the evaluations impasse in New York City would require additional efforts.

“If the governor succeeds in NYC, he will have helped restore the public’s shaken faith in public education,” Williams said.

Cuomo also announced today that he is using the budget to seek curbs on state policies for teacher discipline hearings, reserve a pot of money for districts whose students post higher test scores, and ensure that Regents exams won’t be threatened again, as they were this year.