ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared Wednesday that the “Battle of Albany” is on.
Taking on the state’s traditionally powerful teachers unions, Cuomo threatened to impose tougher job evaluations Feb. 16 if the unions continue to, as he put it, block progress. The evaluations taking into account student performance were required by law two years ago. Lack of labor agreements now threatens more than $1 billion in school funding.
Turning to the state Legislature, Cuomo said legislative election districts proposed for the next 10 years are “wholly unacceptable.” He indicated he won’t sign a revised redistricting proposal without anything short of an overhaul.
“You may not hear the cannon and musket fire, but this battle of Albany, that’s going on,” Cuomo told the New York State Association of Counties. “We’re talking about fundamental change. This has been a system that for 15 years has been dysfunctional, for 15 years that has been operated by the special interests.”
Cuomo said he would use the rare power of New York governors to insert his evaluation system for teachers in budget bills. Unlike in most states, that leaves New York’s Legislature with the option of approving the whole budget bill or rejecting it, and possibly shutting down government after the April 1 start of the fiscal year.
“Two years later, nothing’s happened,” Cuomo said of the teacher union negotiations. “And the federal government called and said it wants its $700 million back.” He referred to the federal Race to the Top competitive grant that New York won in part for promising a tougher evaluation system. Additional state funding is also at risk.
The New York State United Teachers union and state Education Department have said negotiations are progressing and some districts are settling the issue.
NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said Wednesday that significant progress is being made toward implementing the evaluation system, but progress has been delayed by the state’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that the Board of Regents crafted flawed regulations that double the importance of standardized tests.
“All across the state, teachers and school districts are working to develop rigorous and fair evaluation systems that are good for students, fair to teachers and that work for their own communities,” Iannuzzi said. “What they don’t need is another `one size fits all’ unfunded mandate imposed by Albany bureaucrats.”
The union said it will kick off a statewide advertising campaign Thursday to promote “locally developed evaluation systems that advance excellent teaching.”
Cuomo also left little room for the Legislature to make anything but significant changes to its redistricting proposal in his most expansive comments yet on the new maps, which can define Albany politics for the next 10 years.
“The plans are wholly unacceptable as written, I think that’s a pretty clear statement,” Cuomo told reporters after his speech. He wouldn’t go into specifics about the percentage of variation of populations between districts or how compact the districts would have to be for the map to gain his signature. But he indicated he wouldn’t sign a revised proposal only slightly better than the ones presented last week, which he said he will veto.
Redistricting is supposed to use updated census data every 10 years to make sure racial minorities have adequate representation among Senate and Assembly seats under voting rights laws. But the Senate’s Republican majority and the Assembly’s Democratic majority have for decades used the process to stack voters of their party in districts represented by their members. It has helped a 95-percent rate of re-election and preserved the lucrative and powerful perks of the majorities in Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats.
Public hearings have started and changes in the lines are expected before they are voted on by the Legislature and sent to Cuomo. Redistricting is particularly critical in the Senate, where Republicans hope to hold their last bastion of power in the blue state. Republicans have a 32-30 majority going into this fall’s elections.
“Ultimately, I believe these lines will be fair, constitutional and they will be held up (against) challenges,” said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican. “Again, I don’t think this has been a partisan redistricting process.”
Cuomo echoed the opposition of good-government groups.
“I think the Senate draws the lines with an eye toward what is the best interest for the Senate and the Assembly draws the lines with an eye toward what is in the best interest of the Assembly — the best interest of the parties that draw the lines,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “They favor the incumbents.”
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