The Buffalo Board of Education this week went on the offensive against its teachers union, filing a countercharge of improper conduct.
The School Board accuses the Buffalo Teachers Federation of threatening an illegal strike, making a pretense of bargaining and insisting on negotiating questions -- such as class size -- not within the scope of bargaining under the Public Employment Relations Board.
"What we are hoping for is a quick return to the bargaining table," said School Superintendent Albert Thompson. "All we want to do is to get back to the table and resume negotiations."
Thompson said the district's financial condition deteriorates day-by-day as bad news announcements out of Albany pile up and it is important to move.
"Every day I pick up a newspaper or hear a report from Albany things get worse," he said.
Thompson's message was reinforced by at-large member David B. Kelly, who cast one of the five votes in favor of filing the charge against the union.
"We want them to come back and negotiate," Kelly said. "Since Sept. 28, when the board turned down the initial proposition, we've been willing to negotiate and they have not."
Union President Philip Rumore called the countercharge "an act of desperation by the board."
"For the district to file an improper-practices charge against us for bad-faith negotiations is like a mugger suing his victim for breaking the blackjack with his head," Rumore said. "Everybody in this community knows who was in bad-faith negotiations."
In explaining the countercharge Wednesday, Thompson said that the union threatened an illegal strike publicly throughout negotiations and gave power to its Executive Board to call a work action.
"They forced the district to negotiate under the threat of a strike and that's illegal," he said.
In a 5-4 vote Sept. 26, the board turned down the settlement, negotiated by Thompson and Rumore. The proposal included a 35 percent raise over four years. The tentative settlement was reached just before Labor Day, with the expectation of continued increases in state aid to cover the $100 million in costs beyond the current wage scale.
Members who rejected it cited fears that future state-aid money was about to shrivel. Their fears fell short of reality in late October when Cuomo called for a take-back -- still not in its final form -- of $200 million from state school aid already appropriated for this year.
The caucus vote Dec. 5 to file a countercharge against the union was split 5-0-3. Kelly was joined by at-large member John T. Doyle; Frank J. Jager, East District; James W. Comerford, Jr., Park, and Oscar Smukler, North.
Board President Judith Fisher, at large; Bettye Blackman, Ferry District, and Mozella Richardson, Central, abstained from the vote. Victor Turchiarelli, West, was absent.
Smukler, who voted to accept the contract, said that he acted on the advice of board counsel Karl W. Kristoff.
"Once the board turned down the contract it was a whole new ballgame," said Smukler. "I feel very upset that three of the board members would vote to abstain, which really is a no-confidence vote in our attorney."
The union charges against the board, filed soon after the 5-4 rejection of the proposed contract, accuses the board of bad faith in negotiations.
At the start of the hearing in late November, the union insisted that the board has waived its right to ratify and should be forced to honor the pact.
The PERB hearing continues Saturday.