The Buffalo Teachers Federation is claiming vindication in a long-awaited court decision that says Buffalo Public Schools must abide by the union's interpretation of a back-pay dispute. The decision, however, does not say how much is owed.
State Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath's ruling in the decade-old dispute was released Monday, ending a year of suspense in which both sides wondered if the decision would assign a dollar figure to the district's liability.
Now, two things are clear:
The union and the district will have to wait even longer to find out what that amount will be.
No matter how much the sum, it's not going to be good news for the district.
In his decision, Rath wrote that he did not have sufficient information to determine the amount owed. The two sides will meet Oct. 1 with the judge to begin discussing how much the district will owe.
Philip Rumore, the BTF president, claims the amount owed will be about $180 million, including about $50 million in interest.
"The monetary amount will be in our ballpark, because it is correct," Rumore said. "(Rath) has basically set out the formula; all we have to do is plug in the numbers."
Rumore said he did not consider Rath's decision a victory.
"It just doesn't feel like one yet," he said. "I think it's vindication for those four long years that teachers went without a pay increase. I'll be happy when it's over. It's been
a long time."
It may be longer still, because the school district is almost certain to appeal. Although district officials declined to discuss the possibility of an appeal Monday, many have said in recent months that they expected an appeal no matter which side won.
The district refused even to estimate the likely amount the court says it owes from the 1990-94 contract. But district officials previously calculated the amount at $20 million.
"The decision obviously has some disappointing features from the district's point of view, but until such time as we've had a chance to discuss it with the board, we're really unable to comment any further concerning which action may be appropriate," said Karl W. Kristoff, an attorney for the district.
"We're obviously disappointed that the decision did not favor our interpretation of what was owed," district spokesman Andrew Maddigan said Monday night. "Once we've met with our attorneys, we'll be able to explore in greater detail what our options might be."
Paul G. Buchanan, president of the Buffalo Board of Education, declined to comment. He has called a special meeting of the board and its attorneys for 5 p.m. today.
At a special meeting of the union's executive committee Monday night, the 27-member body unanimously approved a motion that urged the board to focus on "a settlement that all sides agree is fair" instead of appealing the decision. The motion set out the union's intention to work with state and federal officials in crafting a payment plan and stated that the teachers "do not seek to bankrupt the city, but look forward to working with the board and the city," Rumore said.
The motion also urged the School Board to remember that the dispute has gone on so long that some of the teachers entitled to back pay from the 1990-94 contract have died.
The roots of Monday's decision are bound up in contentious contract negotiations between the city and the union that began in 1989. Negotiations eventually broke down over salary issues, the Public Employment Relations Board intervened, and eventually the district and the union agreed on a four-year contract with a total 35 percent raise.
The School Board, angry at the proposed raises, rejected the agreement and refused to sign it until forced by a court order. Even after the board signed the contract, it refused to implement the teachers' raises.
State Supreme Court and the Appellate Division upheld the board's refusal to pay the raises. The union appealed to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, and in December 1996 -- against every prediction -- the Court of Appeals reversed the two lower rulings and ordered the district to pay the raises. The decision shocked the school system. But instead of determining the amount, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the state Supreme Court for final disposition.
Monday's ruling stemmed from the wildly different ways the two sides calculated the back-pay amount during negotiations for the contract that covered the 1994-95 and 1995-96 school years. With teachers growing angrier over the unresolved back-pay issue from the 1990-94 contract, and strike threats adding to the pressure on the board, the district worked out a formula for calculating the back pay. The board position left the dispute open to further legal action.
That contract caused agonizing and soul searching for the board and triggered sharp criticism by city officials. Several board members later defended the agreement, saying it was necessary to avert a strike and bring some peace to the school system. In an opinion piece published in The Buffalo News in 1997, Donald A. Van Every -- who was board president when the settlement agreement was negotiated and is now an at-large member -- wrote that the agreement "will haunt me the rest of my life."
The union did go to court again to obtain its back pay, and the two sides presented very different interpretations of the payment formula. The district calculated the amount based on the first school year of the 1990-94 contract agreement, and the union calculated the amount based on the entire four-year period. Rath's decision Monday sided with the union's interpretation.
Now, as the School Board tries to deal with another serious defeat in court, it finds itself in almost the same situation it faced five years ago when it crafted the settlement that might now cost it nearly $200 million: Another contract is being negotiated, the union has started talking about a strike, and the teachers have yet to see a single dollar of their back pay.