Buffalo School Board President Paul G. Buchanan today angrily denied that the board is considering eliminating teaching positions to pay a possible $180 million back-pay settlement.
He reacted to a statement from district spokesman Andrew Maddigan, who said Tuesday that the district might have to consider cutting as many as 400 teachers if the district is forced to find savings of up to $20 million a year to meet the terms of the old contract.
"I'm furious that the school system would even propose in public to lay teachers off to solve this adult-created problem," Buchanan said. "No plan has been presented to the board that would decimate the teaching ranks, that would force closing of schools. If this is a proposal that they have, they better throw it out."
Buchanan said that in its executive session Tuesday night, the board authorized its attorney to meet with the Buffalo Teachers Federation to discuss "any fair resolution" to the financial crisis. "That's as far as we went," he said. "If there's a secret plan that is going to be a spur on the board to decimate the school district, they better keep it under wraps."
The board president also said the district now needs to seek outside help for its labor relations problems. He said he has urged Superintendent James Harris to move in that direction but has been rebuffed. "What we are doing clearly isn't working," he said.
On Tuesday, district spokesman Maddigan said, "It wasn't the ruling we were hoping for, and if an award is in an amount anywhere near what the (Buffalo Teachers) Federation had asked for, there's not going to be an ability to pay any of our bargaining units raises in the near future."
He said that even if the district negotiates a lower settlement with the union, it probably will face layoffs. A settlement of $160 million, for example, paid through a 10-year judgment bond, would mean the district might have to cut a total of 400 teachers and use their salaries to meet annual payments of $20 million, Maddigan said.
In response to Buchanan's criticisms, Maddigan this morning said that his comments about possible layoffs "were an extrapolation of something that's been printed before. They're not intended to suggest the board is seriously considering any staff reductions. We're not at that stage of the process yet." His remarks about possible layoffs came before the board's meeting on Wednesday night, and "by no means should they be characterized as construing the outcome of the meeting."
Maddigan spoke one day after Erie County Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath issued a ruling that sides with the BTF's interpretation of a formula used to calculate back pay from a contract dispute dating to 1990.
Rath's ruling did not assign a dollar figure to the back pay, and a special magistrate may be assigned to help the two sides determine the amount. But Philip Rumore, the BTF president, believes it could reach $180 million.
Robert Chanin, the union's attorney, said Tuesday that "we are not seeking blood out of a stone."
"We're anxious and willing to work it out in a way that does not affect the children, the school system and the city," Chanin said. "But it takes two sides to work that out."
The union realizes that if the district does end up paying the back salaries, it may have to work out a long-term payment plan over 10 or 12 years, Chanin said.
The district has 30 days to file a notice of appeal once a document known as an order -- which makes the judge's ruling official -- is served on the appealing party. Both sides have said an appeal could take a year under ideal circumstances. The pace of the appeal can be slowed if the two parties think they can negotiate a settlement on their own, Chanin said.
"Even if the board appeals, which they probably will, we'd like to see if there's any way we can reach a mutually agreeable settlement," Chanin said. "If they say, 'Stick it in your ear,' then the appeal would move forward more quickly."
Mayor Masiello, who has been an outspoken critic of the school system's management for most of the last year, said nothing about the ruling Tuesday. He will not comment until the district announces what action it plans to take, his spokesman Peter Cutler said Tuesday.
As the realization sank in that the school district might be liable for more than $150 million, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said the state might be able to provide some assistance with a payment plan. But he urged the union, the district and the city to negotiate a workable settlement, because the state will not write a check for $180 million, he said.
The district has not yet said how much it thinks it might owe under the ruling. Up until Monday, the district had maintained that it owed the teachers no more than $22 million in back pay.
The district has set aside no money for the payment, Maddigan said Monday.