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Negotiations bear fruit Tentative agreement for school union could be a model for other contract talks

The Buffalo Public School system's long stalemate over the issue of a single health insurer took a small step toward resolution recently with a tentative contract agreement between the operating engineers and district officials. That movement is welcome, especially if it helps persuade the district's eight other unions to follow that path.

The tentative contract would consolidate health insurance coverage under a single carrier in return for yearly pay hikes of about 2 percent. It's the the kind of agreement that could lift a 3-year-old wage freeze imposed by the state control board, if the board sees enough savings from the pact to offset the cost.

This newest development is perhaps the largest in what has amounted to a faceoff between district officials and the district's unions, including the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Settling under a single health insurer would save the district millions of dollars and could, therefore, save hundreds of jobs. The district has offered evidence that there would be no change in coverage. Certain unions are not buying that argument.

Nothing in the operating engineers' agreement yet is set in stone, but the mere suggestion that one of the unions would be willing to consider going to a single health insurer is about the most progress on the issue to date. The Buffalo Teachers Federation -- which says it is willing to negotiate a single-carrier health insurance -- took legal action when the district imposed the process without union agreement. Given the link between cost savings and the saving of teacher positions, that was the right move for the sake of district schoolchildren -- but the process was ruled legally flawed, and without resumed negotiations, teaching and other jobs are again at risk.

Any negotiations between the unions and the district with regard to a single health insurer are extremely sensitive. Neither side wants to discuss the tentative agreement, and the control board is not commenting, either.

The proposal, to be voted upon by union members tonight, includes other important provisions. The insurance clause, though, could be significant for all other district labor negotiations. Control board members have indicated a willingness to consider lifting the wage freeze for unions interested in putting something substantial on the table, and this could be the test.

Other unions would do well to take note. The control board law clearly states that there will be no retroactivity, which means that for every day that goes by without some agreement that might lift the wage freeze, someone is losing money.

If the unions interested in keeping the multiple carrier method manage to do just that, the district could see increased class sizes; and 200 to 300 teaching jobs could be threatened. That would be a hollow victory, and a blow to the schoolchildren of Buffalo.

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