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Unions Complain About Evaluations

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Copyright © 2012, Albuquerque Journal

Leaders of three New Mexico education unions sent a letter Friday to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, claiming they have been left out as the state writes a new teacher evaluation system.

The letter says state education chief Hanna Skandera did not include any teachers nominated by the American Federation of Teachers in an advisory council on teacher evaluations. It also says parents and school board members were not included, and that the panel has not posted its meetings or advertised them to the public, in violation of the state Open Meetings Act.

The letter was signed by leaders of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers; the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, the union’s local chapter; and the Albuquerque Educational Assistants Association.

It was not signed by representatives of the National Education Association, which has a more harmonious relationship with state education officials.

Both the NEA and the AFT claim to have about 8,000 members statewide.

Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens was dismissive of the letter.

“It’s no surprise that a select few from the status quo continue to fight accountability,” Behrens said. “However, there are some organized teacher groups who have stepped up to the table and continue to operate in good faith. We will continue to work with those who want to put students before cheap political rhetoric.”

Behrens said the advisory council is not a policy-making body and is, therefore, not subject to the Open Meetings Act. But he said the meeting dates have been made available.

Skandera has been working toward an overhaul of the state’s teacher evaluation system since she was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in late 2010. Twice, she and the governor have pushed for legislation to replace New Mexico’s current three-tier teacher licensure system with one that evaluates teachers based on test score improvement, classroom observations and other measures of student learning that have not been determined.

After the bill failed in the most recent session, the Public Education Department began working to change teacher evaluations through administrative rule.

That rule is now in draft form, and a hearing for public comment will be held Wednesday in Santa Fe. The AFT is spearheading an effort to protest the rule during the hearing. The union contends the system relies too heavily on standardized tests.

In February, New Mexico was approved for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act after promising to adopt a new school rating system, move to Common Core standards and develop a teacher evaluation system based at least partly on student achievement.

Friday’s letter says Skandera has not fulfilled a pledge she made in the waiver application to “engage teachers and teacher representatives in implementing the waiver.” The claim is based on a dispute over whether the AFT was fairly represented on the council.

The state AFT made nominations to the advisory council, but no one on the list was chosen, said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque chapter. The Public Education Department’s initial call for nominations said three spots on the 18-member council would be nominated by teaching organizations, while another three teachers would be selected “at large” by the PED. Other advisory council members include principals, school district representatives, technical experts and one member each from the business community and the Indian and Hispanic education councils.

Two teachers nominated by the NEA were seated on the council, but Bernstein said the third “union” spot was filled by Nancy Taranto, a Grants teacher who is an AFT member.

Behrens said Taranto was nominated by the vice president of the union’s Cibola County chapter. But state union President Stephanie Ly said Taranto did not intend to speak for the union, nor was she nominated by the union as a whole. Local chapters don’t have authority to nominate on behalf of the state organization, she said.

“She wanted to represent her own views, and not the union’s views,” Ly said.

Reached by email, Taranto refused to comment.

“I’m sure she’s lovely, and I’m sure she’s an excellent teacher. She’s a member of our union, and I’m glad she’s a member of our union,” Bernstein said. “Apparently, she got uncomfortable about the fact that she was supposed to be representing an entire collective instead of just her own views, and wanted to switch with another woman who happens to be more involved with the union.”

After Taranto asked to switch roles with another member of the council, the AFT asked if it could nominate someone else to speak for the union. The PED has denied that request, but Taranto has switched roles, and a different member of the council will now speak for AFT.

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