The Buffalo Teachers Federation on Wednesday called off contract negotiations with the Buffalo Public Schools, accusing Superintendent James A. Williams of launching "a public fear campaign" designed to scare teachers, undermine the BTF and "enrage the public."
"You have once again poisoned the waters," BTF President Philip Rumore said in a letter to Williams. "We see no reason to either trust you or the district to negotiate in good faith."
Rumore said the BTF move was prompted by a Buffalo News story in which Williams said the school district will be forced to lay off 641 employees -- mostly teachers -- over the next four years unless a recent court ruling on salary steps is overturned.
Those comments, Rumore said, were "another blatant act of bad faith -- one that we, unfortunately, have come to expect from you and the district."
Rumore said Williams understated state aid increases, failed to consider across-the-board budget cuts that could avoid many teacher layoffs and did not address the district's "fiscal irresponsibility" for not having a contingency fund to cover potential costs arising from the court decision.
In addition, Rumore said, William's public comments were "an obvious attempt" to pressure Board of Education members to vote to appeal a State Supreme Court ruling. That decision said 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.
Negotiating sessions between the BTF and district had been scheduled for Dec. 11 and 18, but Rumore said there is now "no useful purpose" in holding them.
Williams called the decision to cancel contract talks "typical" of the BTF.
"The only way we're going to solve this is through negotiations," he said.
What is his plan now that the BTF has called off negotiations?
"I'll think about it tomorrow," Williams said. "I'll sleep on it."
Williams made his brief comments following a Board of Education meeting at which members clashed heatedly over the step increase decision and related issues.
Board members Catherine Nugent Panepinto and Vivian Evans argued heatedly, prompting Ralph Hernandez, who headed the meeting, to clear the room of spectators and call for what he said would be a five-minute, closed-door executive session.
Instead, the board met privately for much longer than that, with lots of shouting.
When the public portion of the meeting resumed, Panepinto criticized Williams for telling The News that the layoffs would jeopardize key initiatives to improve student achievement and broaden academic and extracurricular activities.
"Obviously, that's a horrible, horrible message to have out there," Panepinto said. "I want to make it clear that we are dedicated to those things," she said in reference to the programs that Williams mentioned.
She said teachers "deserve" all the step increases they can win in court. Teachers were scared and upset by Williams' comments, Panepinto said, and she offered them this message: "Please keep the faith. We're trying to work collaboratively."
Williams said he was "sick" of hearing Panepinto's comments, but it was unclear what in particular he was referring to.
"What I said is real," Williams said of his comments to The News. "You're either for children or you're for something else."
Board member Christopher Jacobs supported Williams for his public comments.
"I have no problem with the article," he said. "What was conveyed in that article was accurate, in my mind. The community should know that."
The board called a special meeting for next Wednesday to discuss a possible appeal of the court ruling.