In a landmark development, the union for the Buffalo Public Schools' operating engineers has agreed to a tentative contract that would consolidate health insurance coverage under a single carrier in return for yearly pay hikes of about 2 percent.
Jeff Lathrop, president of the union, declined to discuss details of the proposed contract but confirmed that it is designed to overcome the restraints of the 3-year-old wage freeze imposed by the state control board.
Control board officials have said they would consider approving raises for city or school district workers only if simultaneous savings exceed the cost of the raises. In the case of the engineers, those savings would come through single-carrier health insurance.
"We've done everything we can to comply with the conditions the control board says they need to see," said Lathrop, president of Local 409, International Union of Operating Engineers.
The contract also could begin reversing many years of labor unrest in the school district; provide a breakthrough in what had been near-paralysis in contract negotiations with the district's nine unions; put public pressure on other unions -- including the Buffalo Teachers Federation -- to agree to single-carrier health insurance; and ensure the future of a controversial school maintenance system that allows engineers to pocket money they don't spend on subcontractors and other expenses.
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said Thursday it is always "a good thing" when unions negotiate contracts they are comfortable with, and he wished Local 409 well. But he said the tentative agreement will not prompt a change in approach by the BTF, by far the district's largest union.
"Each negotiation is separate," Rumore said. "This is not a model for what we're going to negotiate."
Rumore said the BTF has long been willing to negotiate single-carrier health insurance but took legal action when the district imposed it without union agreement. A judge recently ordered the district to restore multiple health care options for BTF members, and the Board of Education is appealing that decision.
Both control board and school district officials declined to comment on the tentative agreement with the engineers, which was discussed in a closed-door executive session Wednesday evening by the Board of Education.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said the proposed agreement, which runs through July 31, 2010, hinges on yearly raises of about 2 percent in return for the engineers agreeing to consolidate health insurance under a single carrier.
The pact also would provide lump-sum bonuses and contains provisions designed to keep schools open later in the afternoon, at least some of the time, sources said. The engineers' previous contract expired in 2001, but there will be no retroactive pay hikes for the past 5 1/2 years.
The agreement still must be approved by union members, the Board of Education and the control board. Sources said it was greeted positively Wednesday in the closed Board of Education meeting, and Lathrop said he anticipates strong support from the 66 members of the union.
"The wild card is the control board itself," Lathrop said.
He said he will brief union members today, and that they will vote on the pact Tuesday. The Board of Education would then vote on the contract Wednesday evening. In the meantime, efforts are being made to enlist the support of the control board, which has the authority to approve or reject the contract.
The engineers -- who are responsible for everything from maintaining boilers to plowing snow -- have base salaries that start at $40,065 but in some cases swell to $70,000 with overtime.
The engineers also are allocated additional money by the Board of Education to maintain their individual schools and -- acting as independent contractors -- pocket funds they don't spend on subcontractors and other expenses.
That arrangement came under fire from the control board several years ago, and a consulting firm in 2005 said the school system could save $2 million a year by hiring a private company to maintain school buildings and grounds.
Board members said then they would instead try to reform the current system, calling it a good one that could be made better.