AUGUSTA — At a legislative hearing Wednesday, teachers spoke in favor of performance evaluations but against a bill that would require school districts to adopt new evaluation systems.

The bill, L.D. 1858, would allow school districts to dismiss poorly rated teachers if they don’t improve after two years. It limits appeals of those dismissals in a way that teachers said strips them of due process protections.

Proponents of the bill, including people who testified on behalf of Maine superintendents and school boards, said the restriction on appeals and grievances is necessary to enable school districts to get rid of ineffective teachers.

“Without it, we expect that grievances will be filed as a matter of course by the state teachers union,” said Paul Stearns, president-elect of Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of Guilford-based Regional School Unit 80.

L.D. 1858, also called “An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership,” requires school districts to implement comprehensive performance evaluation systems for teachers and principals by 2015-16.

The Maine Department of Education would develop standards around which school districts would craft their own evaluation systems. Educators would be rated on multiple levels of effectiveness, which must include “student learning and growth” data. School districts must give educators the opportunity and support to address their shortcomings, and two consecutive years of “ineffective” ratings would be grounds for nonrenewal of a teaching contract.

The bill also requires the Department of Education to collect data on state teacher training programs regarding the number of graduates who become certified and the number who are still teaching in Maine three and five years after graduation.

It also allows for “alternative paths” to teacher certification for people who do not have education degrees but can demonstrate competency in the subject matter they would teach.

On Wednesday, some teachers raised concerns about the inclusion of student achievement data in educator ratings. The bill does not specify what data should be used; some states are using standardized test scores.

Sally Plourde, a veteran second-grade teacher in the Westbrook School Department, said standardized tests are designed to assess a student’s knowledge, not a teacher’s effectiveness. She said she has many students whose circumstances outside the classroom make learning difficult, including two homeless students, five English language-learners and a boy who has exhibited suicidal behavior.

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said there is an overwhelming movement toward using student data in evaluations, and the union does not object as long as teachers can help craft a system that includes other measures of effectiveness.

The U.S. Department of Education is requiring states to adopt evaluation systems that incorporate student data in order to secure waivers to parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Teachers and MEA officials said a law such as L.D. 1858 is necessary because evaluation procedures are inconsistent across and within school districts. Some teachers are not evaluated for years or receive only a cursory evaluation that doesn’t provide useful feedback, several teachers said.

“Ninety-five percent of it, we can completely embrace,” said John Kosinski, director of government relations for MEA. “We’ve been saying for years that we want a thorough, rigorous evaluation system. … If we can get rid of three paragraphs and one sentence in this bill, we’ll change our views.”

MEA’s objection, echoed by the teachers who testified, is to a section in the bill that limits teachers’ ability to appeal decisions based on evaluations.

L.D. 1858 says teachers can dispute only departures from established evaluation procedures, not the content of an evaluation.

The teachers said that strips them of due process rights and gives too much power to administrators looking for ways to get rid of teachers they don’t like.

Susan Smith, a kindergarten teacher for RSU 23, said Maine law already allows school districts to dismiss bad teachers by evaluating them and documenting their shortcomings.

“I firmly believe that when we have ineffective teachers, the reason that nobody has gotten rid of them is the administrators have not followed through on their part of the task,” she said.

If a school board decides not to review a teacher’s contract at the administration’s recommendation, the teacher can request a hearing before the school board. If the school board upholds the decision, most union contracts allow the teacher to take the case to binding arbitration.

Augusta School Department Superintendent Connie Brown said the process is expensive and time-consuming, and the arbitrators don’t know enough about education to make decisions that benefit students.

Kosinski said teachers often don’t fight nonrenewal. MEA knows of one nonrenewal in the past two years that went to a school board hearing, and Kosinski said only 17 nonrenewals have gone to arbitration in 35 years.

Some Democratic members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee asked Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen why it’s necessary to limit teachers’ ability to appeal or file grievances.

“What kind of a problem are we facing, what kind of a problem does that address?” asked Rep. Mary Pennell Nelson, D-Falmouth. “Is the system broken so that we don’t let bad teachers go because it’s too difficult? And how does this address that specifically?”

Bowen said the bill is primarily about improving evaluation procedures, not getting rid of teachers.

“It has to have some meaning once it’s in place. Otherwise, what is the point?” he said. “If you’re going to build this system, it has to be useable once you get there.”

Even supporters of L.D. 1815 raised concerns about its costs. School districts will have to develop new evaluation systems, train teachers and supervisors, make time for principals or others to conduct evaluations, and help teachers trying to improve.

According to the bill, the state will attempt to determine those costs and incorporate them into the funding formula for schools.

Bowen said he does not know whether the state will increase the overall subsidy to schools to cover those expenses.

“We’re going to fund it to the best of our ability to fund it,” he said. “I can’t commit the next Legislature to pay for it.”

Stearns said school districts already struggle to provide enough time and money for professional development.

“I don’t think there’ll ever be enough professional development money,” he said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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