Unions question timing of teacher eval changes

April 5, 2017

The leaders of two New Mexico teachers unions have criticized Gov. Susana Martinez for holding this week’s news conference about changes to the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system on a Sunday afternoon, when schools and government offices were closed, saying it was a ploy to keep the crowd small and favorable.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association of New Mexico, and Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, also said they see the evaluation changes — what the governor called a compromise with educators’ demands — as an attempt to stall two lawsuits the unions have filed over the evaluation system.

Martinez announced Sunday that the state is dropping the weight of student test score results in the performance evaluations to 35 percent from 50 percent and increasing the number of sick days, to six from three, that teachers can take without facing a penalty.

Ly said she thinks Martinez planned the last-minute event on a Sunday to “catch people off guard.” Official notice of the news conference, held in a small classroom of the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, was released just an hour and a half before its start.

“They specifically wanted a very small, tightly controlled group,” Ly said, “so they would have the people who would say, ‘Oh, they are wonderful!’ ”

“This is one of the first times I can recall a major announcement made on a Sunday,” Bowyer said. “It appears to me so that it would only be attended by a select group of folks that the governor wanted … the ones she often uses for her cheering section.”

While many educators who attended the event said they approve of the evaluation changes, Brian Smith, a Santa Fe High School computer science teacher, said in an interview Tuesday that he doesn’t think they will help him much. “Going from 50 t0 35 percent may at least bump me up to minimally effective,” he said.

Smith received a rating of “ineffective” last year, when he was teaching math, mostly because of student test scores, he said.

Bowyer called Sunday’s event “a political stunt.” Martinez’s spokesman, Michael Lonergan, used the same language in reference to Santa Fe Public Schools’ “snow day for action” last month, in which district leaders canceled classes for half a day and held a rally at the Roundhouse to protest proposed education funding cuts.

The state Public Education Department informed the school district that it was investigating complaints about the rally and concerns that the district possibly overstepped state laws that prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for political purposes. Superintendent Veronica García fired back last week, saying Martinez and Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera essentially have done the same thing — by advocating for education initiatives at public schools during classroom hours, with teachers and students in attendance.

Skandera told The New Mexican on Sunday that the decision to hold a weekend event was not in response to García’s criticism but because of teachers’ work schedules.

Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez reiterated that in an email Monday. “This schedule worked for both the teachers and the governor,” he said.

Michael Lonergan, another spokesman for the governor, said the evaluation changes were “the result of the administration listening to teachers from all around the state. … This is a proposal by teachers, for teachers.”

He said the critics’ assertion that Sunday’s announcement was tied to the ongoing lawsuits “sounds like political sniping from special interest union bosses.”

The changes are based on recommendations from the nonprofit Teach Plus New Mexico, a group of 15 educators from around the state. Last year, the group conducted a poll of more than 1,000 New Mexico teachers and translated the results into evaluation policy recommendations.

Several members of the group said they found nothing unusual or political about Sunday’s event.

But only once in the past several years has the Public Education Department made a key announcement on a Sunday. In early January, the department issued a Sunday news release saying 96 percent of elementary schoolchildren who could not read proficiently were being promoted and that in most of those cases, their parents were not officially informed of their struggles. Many school officials later disputed that claim.

Roswell teacher Hope Morales, a member of Teach Plus New Mexico, said neither Martinez nor Skandera pressured the group to come up with the new teacher evaluation guidelines, and neither pushed for the group to drop the news on a Sunday.

“I think we tried to put the pressure on them,” Morales said. The group saw the changes as a positive development for the state’s 22,000 public school teachers, she added.

The use of student test scores to evaluate a teacher’s performance has remained a sore sport for teachers unions and many educators around the state.

The Martinez administration’s emphasis on teacher attendance has been a second point of contention, with teachers saying it unfairly penalizes them for staying home when they’re sick and Martinez and Skandera arguing that holding teachers to high attendance standards has led to lower absentee rates.

The percentage of New Mexico teachers missing 10 days or more dropped to 12 percent last year from 47 percent in 2012, Martinez has said. She vetoed legislation that would have granted teachers 10 sick days, rather than three, without penalty.

Skandera on Sunday called the six-day policy, as well as the test score change, “a great balance and compromise.”

But Smith, the Santa Fe High computer science teacher, said he’s concerned that the new policy still doesn’t give teachers enough leeway. “It still bothers me, not as a teacher, but as a parent,” he said. “If my kid gets sick and I need to take a day off to take care of my kid, and I have that held against me in my evaluation, that really sucks.”

It doesn’t appear that the evaluation system’s changes will directly affect two state District Court lawsuits that unions have filed, as neither case is based specifically on teacher sick leave or the weight of student test score data. Attorneys for the unions did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment on how the changes might impact their cases.

Bowyer and Ly said state attorneys could argue, however, that because of the changes, they need more time to provide data to the court on how the evaluations are working.

The NEA lawsuit, filed in 2014, charges that the system unlawfully takes control of teacher evaluations and supervision of teachers away from local school districts. The American Federation of Teachers-NM, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2014 contending the state Public Education Department could use a poor evaluation as a reason to punish or even fire a teacher.

Both those cases are slated to be heard in separate courtrooms in October, Bowyer and Ly said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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