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FEWER DISTRICTS FACE LABOR WOES AS SCHOOLS OPEN

As Western New York public schools get ready to deal with the return of students this week, there's one thing an increasing number won't have to deal with: teachers without contracts.

Reflecting a growing trend across New York State, fewer school districts are at an impasse with their teachers and more have actually settled with their unions.

But the exceptions are notable: Buffalo City Schools, Williamsville, West Seneca, Orchard Park, Sweet Home, Lockport and Dunkirk are among those without deals.

Still, only five school districts in Western New York -- Sweet Home, Lockport, Starpoint, Dunkirk and Randolph -- are at an impasse with their teachers union, according to the Public Employment Relations Board. In Erie County, six of 26 school districts are without contracts.

The biggest of all, of course, is Buffalo, with its 45,000 students and 4,000 teachers. While negotiations haven't technically reached an impasse, the two sides already have invited PERB to participate in negotiations.

Philip Rumore, head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said teachers will meet in Kleinhans Music Hall at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Rumore said he is "hopeful" about negotiations, which were likely to continue over the weekend.

"We have very seldom worked without a contract or the possibility of a contract," he said. "With the advent of the standards and the new tests and new procedures from the (New York State) Board of Regents, we would guess the (Buffalo Board of Education) would not want to have an unsettled situation. The board has settled with all of its major bargaining units. We expect they'll do no less with the teachers."

Rumore said there would be no linking of current negotiations with the union's lawsuit regarding back pay from 1990-94. He noted 800 of the union's members weren't working for the district then.

Spokesmen for the district did not return calls seeking comment.

Across the state, PERB reports 44 impasses at the start of the school year, down 39 percent from last year, when there were 72.

"This is the most serene year we've had," said Richard Curreri, director of public conciliation for PERB. "There's an unusual downturn in labor disputes."

Curreri said in addition to increased state aid (a record $12.6 billion this year), low inflation and low unemployment rates also have helped produce quicker labor settlements.

The state School Boards Association, however, is concerned current impasses will drag on longer before they are resolved, spokesman David Ernst said.

Under legislation called the Triborough Amendment, the terms of an expired contract remain in effect until a new contract is negotiated.

"The Triborough Amendment leaves teachers with little incentive to settle and gives them incentive to hold out," Ernst said.

Dunkirk has the longest-running contract standoff in Western New York, and it shows no signs of ending soon. The district's teachers have been without a contract since 1996.

The district and teachers are awaiting the results of a fact-finding report from PERB next month. Then, the two sides can either agree to the report's findings and sign a contract or walk away from the deal.

Albert Baker, chairman of the union's Teachers Crisis Committee, isn't optimistic there will be a quick settlement.

"We're really no further along than we were four years ago," Baker said. "If one side doesn't agree, then we're back to the drawing board."

Baker said the impasse, along with a recently rescinded residency requirement for teachers, is taking its toll, and the district will be opening the year with five substitute teachers in positions the district hadn't been able to fill.

"If I'm a new teacher, I want to see what the pay is like and what the working relationship is between the teachers association and the district," he said. "And if I (as a job candidate) could get a job someplace else, I would."

Terry Wolfenden, school superintendent, said the district hoped to fill two of the five openings by next week.

"It's always difficult when there's prolonged negotiations," she said. In Orchard Park, the district may not be able to afford to settle a contract with the teachers -- at least not one with a percentage raise.

This year's budget -- constructed by a board controlled by members elected with the help of the Orchard Park Citizens Group -- has no money to pay teachers beyond the yearly step increases they're guaranteed by the Triborough Amendment.

Control of the board changed with May's elections, and new board president M. Donald Pritchard says he's not sure how the district would pay for any raises if a settlement were reached quickly. He said until a contract is reached, it's impossible to even know how much money it will require.

"How would we pay for it?," he asked. "I don't really know right now. I'm sure we will."

Scott L. Shiffner, president of the Orchard Park Teachers Association, said that negotiations hadn't touched on where money for raises would come from, but that both sides had presented substantial proposals that would take time to go through anyway.

In other area schools:

* Sweet Home -- Proposals were exchanged Thursday and are being reviewed. They've gone through mediation, fact-finding and are in the "conciliation" stage, according to PERB.

* Lockport -- An impasse has been declared in negotiations. The first PERB mediation will probably occur next month.

* Starpoint -- Talks are at an impasse, with the first mediation meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

* Randolph -- A mediator has been assigned and the mediation process is under way.

Statewide, 147 school districts are starting the year without contracts, down from 152 last year. But 108 of those contracts have expired since the end of last school year, and a long-term look shows a major change from early in the 1990s, when the number of impasses averaged between 135 and 140, according to Curreri. "The drop-off from the beginning of this decade is about two-thirds, which is remarkable," he said.

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