Buffalo School Board President Paul G. Buchanan apologized Wednesday for his unauthorized letter to the teachers union, in a closed board meeting that one colleague described as a trip to the woodshed.
At-large member Donald Van Every left the executive session in disgust when the board turned to the letter, which Buchanan sent Tuesday to Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and to Superintendent James Harris. The letter outlined options for a possible settlement to the decade-old dispute that led to a lawsuit over the 1990-1994 teachers' contract, in which the district faces a possible $180 million judgment for back pay.
"It's not something that I want to participate in," Van Every said as he walked out. "They're taking Buchanan to the woodshed, politely, calmly. He's already apologized."
Buchanan made a brief statement at the end of the 90-minute executive session.
"I want to strongly underscore and reiterate that the letter I sent yesterday to the superintendent and Mr. Rumore were the comments of myself and myself alone," he said. "I'm not speaking on behalf of the board, and it should not in any way, shape or form be construed as a settlement proposal."
In response to questions, Buchanan simply said, "We had a frank and honest discussion."
Several board members were astonished Tuesday to learn that Buchanan sent the letter, which he signed as board president without consulting the board or the district's attorney. The board had agreed last week not to make any statements about a State Supreme Court ruling released Sept. 13 in which Justice Edward A. Rath sided with the union's interpretation of a formula used See Board Page The district has not announced whether it will appeal the ruling or try to negotiate a settlement with the teachers, and several board members were furious that Buchanan released his letter to reporters Tuesday without telling the board or district officials that he had written it.
In a statement Wednesday, Rumore said Buchanan's call for negotiations simply reinforced the union's position. The union views any willingness to move forward in the lawsuit as a good sign, Rumore said.
Rath has ordered the two sides to meet in Supreme Court Oct. 1 to begin discussing the amount the district owes the teachers. The judge may appoint a special magistrate to help the parties reach an agreement on the figure.
The district originally argued that it owed the teachers $22 million. The discrepancy between the district's calculations and the union's estimate of $180 million occurred because the district calculated the formula based on the first year of the disputed contract, and the union used all four years.
In his six-page letter, Buchanan suggested a number of ways the district could finance the back pay, including the issuance of judgment bonds through a special act of the State Legislature. He also proposed that any settlement be tied to the negotiation of a five-year contract for the teachers.
Current contract negotiations are suspended until Tuesday. The state's Public Employment Relations Board has asked the district to return on that date with an offer to the teachers. The previous contract expired June 30.