By DAVE GYMBURCH Staff writer

Rome teachers union leaders are up in arms about the way a new teacher evaluation system is being put into effect by the school district.

Using descriptions including "breach of trust," "chaos," and "morale...at an all-time low," three union officers and a school building union representative told the Board of Education Wednesday night that evaluations are beginning without enough training for teachers in the new standards.

They also charged the district is not following agreements to work with the union to coordinate training, and objected to the handling of negotiations for a new overall contract that they say is linked to the evaluation system.

However, Superintendent Jeffrey P. Simons disagreed.

After the meeting, he acknowledged more training is needed and will be upcoming, but emphasized that teachers who receive lower evaluation scores in the current year or 2013-14 would not see them used for ongoing employment considerations; he termed it a "hold harmless" provision to allow time to become more familiar with the system.

Simons said the district is trying to balance the training needs with classroom disruptions and additional expenses involved, while also working within requirements to complete the evaluations by state deadlines.

At issue is a state-required APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) plan for evaluations of teachers and principals that was agreed to by the union and district in December and was approved by the state in January; the plan needed state approval by Jan. 17 or the district would have lost a state aid increase of about $3 million for 2012-13.

Part of a teacher’s evaluation is to stem from measures of students’ progress that are locally agreed upon within a given district through collective bargaining. Another factor in the Rome negotiations for the new plan was that the teacher union’s current overall contract expires June 30; the two sides agreed to submit the plan to the state while continuing to negotiate a successor agreement to the contract.

But the board was told by Rome Teachers Association President Robert Wood that the union has to ratify a new contract before the APPR plan can be fully implemented; union Vice President Christina Steurrys read aloud from part of a memorandum of agreement with the district that included such terms. Wood said teacher training is essential for the APPR, but "in my mind...the district is not providing agreed-upon training." He cited a "breach of trust...breach of terms."

Steurrys said key elements of the new evaluation system, including a portion linked to a statewide teachers union "rubric" of measures and criteria, "have been pushed ahead by the district without joint planning," including administrators using it to evaluate teachers who have not been trained in its use. She said "if you were to walk the halls of our schools today, you would find teachers whose morale is at an all-time low, who are confused, angry, and have many unanswered questions."

Union secretary Joe Eurto said "the district’s communication to the teachers has been deplorable" and added "the district’s lack of planning has caused chaos." He said teachers "are on pins and needles, unaware if today will be their day to be observed under this new APPR." Many teachers have the impression it is a "‘gotcha’ tool," he added, and cited "scrambling" by teachers to present correct documentation for standards "without proper training on the rubric."

Patricia Nisiewicz, union representative at Rome Free Academy, referred to a test system for which she had "absolutely no idea what these numbers mean," and said planning "really is lacking."

Simons said "it’s hard for me to understand where some of their comments are coming from." The district anticipated the new plan could be "difficult to implement" given the mid-year timing, he said, and agreed "no bargaining unit member who receives a ‘developing’ or ‘ineffective’ rating in the 2012-13 or 2013-14 year shall have that rating used" in such determinations as tenure, continued employment, or disciplinary actions.

The new evaluations are an "unfunded mandate" from the state, he said, adding that the district’s APPR costs so far have totaled about $115,000 including training plus purchases of assessments. But he also said the new system is "an opportunity to improve instruction for all kids."

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"We’re trying to balance requirements of teacher training" with "cost factors inherent in our requirements under current contracts," said Simons. Options include pulling teachers out of classrooms and using substitutes at an average cost of about $100 a day, or training sessions outside the school day, with teachers being paid $26 per hour, he said. A recent Saturday training session on the "rubric" included about 22 teachers and seven administrators, and cost about $9,700, he said. The district has about 500 teachers.

The district is under deadlines to complete evaluations by the end of this school year and anticipates that overall evaluation scores will be submitted to the state this fall, said Simons. The district "can’t wait for all the training to be completed before principals go into classrooms" to perform evaluations, he explained.

Regarding overall contract issues, "we’re continuing to negotiate" with the union, said Simons. The district also must reach agreement and get state approval on an APPR plan for 2013-14, he said.