Union leaders blast Education Department over lawsuit delay

The leaders of two powerful teachers unions in New Mexico blasted the state Public Education Department on Friday for causing a delay in a District Court hearing for a lawsuit over the state’s teacher evaluation system.

First District Court Judge David Thomson has postponed a hearing in the case for the second time this year to give attorneys more time to provide data and depositions.

Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, and Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said in a news release that the court’s postponement, announced Friday, is the result of an attempt by the Public Education Department to “salvage … an irreparably flawed evaluation system.”

The statement accuses the department of a scheme to stall the trial, which had been set for October. The plan includes failing to provide information in the case, making “arbitrary rule changes to the evaluation system” and even changing leadership, the statement says, referring to Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera’s recent decision to step down.

Changes to the teacher evaluation system this year include lessening the weight of student scores on standardized tests — to 35 percent rather than 50 percent of a performance review — and allowing teachers to take six sick days, rather than three, before they face penalties on their review.

While Skandera and Gov. Susana Martinez called the changes a compromise with educators who were critical of the evaluation system, Ly called them “superficial changes” when they were announced earlier this year.

Lida Alikhani, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department, countered that both sides in the case agreed to the hearing delay so that their attorneys could better prepare. The teachers unions were spreading “false information,” she said.

The suit, filed in 2014 by the two unions and other plaintiffs, argues that the evaluation system could harm teachers who fare poorly. It is one of two challenging the state’s performance reviews for educators.

A separate lawsuit filed in 2014 by the National Education Association of New Mexico contends that the performance review system takes control of teacher evaluations away from local school districts. That case also is pending.

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