Buffalo Public Schools will be forced to lay off 641 employees -- mostly teachers -- over the next four years unless a recent court ruling on salary step increases is overturned, Superintendent James A. Williams said Tuesday.
The layoffs would jeopardize efforts to boost Advanced Placement course offerings, establish junior varsity sports teams, improve school security, broaden foreign language instruction, establish an Olmsted High School and build a swimming pool at City Honors School, Williams said.
"There's no place to turn once the steps are back in," Gary M. Crosby, the system's chief financial officer, told The Buffalo News Editorial Board. "We're dead in the water then."
Earlier this month, State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek ruled that the school system and the city must place employees on the salary steps they would have reached had a now-lifted wage freeze not been imposed for 38 months. Attorneys said that will cost the city and school system $130 million over four years.
Williams is seeking permission from the Board of Education to appeal that decision. If the ruling stands, he said, it would plunge the system back into the crisis it faced earlier this decade, when it laid off 1,000 workers over four years and gutted instructional programs.
"That's not a scare tactic or a threat," Williams said. "We were there before, and history is about to repeat itself. This is tough. This is business now."
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the system is underestimating revenue it will receive through the 2010-11 school year and targeting teachers while neglecting cuts it could make that would not affect the instructional program.
Rumore also criticized school officials for failing to set aside money in anticipation of losing the court case and said they were trying to scare teachers just as negotiations are resuming on a long-delayed contract.
"They're doing what they always do with negotiations -- painting a gloom-and-doom scenario," Rumore said. "That's really a scare tactic. In light of that, we are reconsidering whether we will even negotiate with them."
In addition to friction with the teachers union and the unfavorable court ruling, Williams faces considerable sentiment among Board of Education members that the system should not appeal Michalek's decision.
Ralph Hernandez, the board's West District member, said Tuesday that the schools should "respect the decision and move forward." Doing so, he said, could convince the teachers union and other unions that the board is serious about healing old wounds and negotiating contracts.
Crosby said failing to appeal would be counterproductive.
"Imagine what it's going to be like at the bargaining table when we have no leverage," he said.
Williams said he will ask the board to authorize an appeal before a Dec. 20 deadline but said it will be "a tough sell."
Crosby said an order to pay four salary steps rather than one would create a $99 million deficit over the next four years. That would necessitate layoffs and program cuts, delivering a crushing blow to efforts to improve student achievement, Williams said.
"How can you build programs and lay people off at the same time?" he said. "It's impossible."