Buffalo Public Schools officials ran out of legal options Thursday in their three-year effort to provide lower-cost single-carrier health insurance for teachers without the agreement of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
Since unilaterally imposing the plan in 2005, the system has saved more than $40 million while providing teachers medical coverage identical to what they previously received, officials claim.
But an arbitrator's ruling and two subsequent court decisions ordered the system to restore the four previous health insurance options, as required by the union contract.
Thursday, the State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, denied the school system's request that it reconsider the case.
That gives the teachers union, which is working under the terms of a contract that expired several years ago, tremendous leverage in contract talks.
"This is a wake-up call for the [Board of Education]," said Philip Rumore, union president. "If they want to get the single-carrier plan, they've got to do what the courts say and negotiate it with us."
Even so, the case faces a strong likelihood of returning to the courts in a slightly different form.
Rumore said school officials are obligated to offer multiple-carrier plans directly through health insurance companies.
But that would raise the system's costs by $14 million a year without providing additional benefits, said Gary Crosby, the system's chief financial and operating officer.
Instead, Crosby said, the system plans to reactivate the four required options but operate them through a self-insurance plan that would raise costs by $4 million a year.
That would prompt the union to go back to court, Rumore warned, adding, "We expect the board to immediately comply with the order."
Crosby said he was disappointed but not surprised by the Court of Appeals' refusal to hear the case.
He urged the union "to show some compassion and save the district some money" by agreeing to delay implementation of the rulings while negotiations proceed on a new contract. The talks, sporadic until now, have made little if any progress.
Rumore said the union has long been willing to negotiate a single-carrier plan and criticized the school system for unilaterally imposing the single carrier plan in 2005.
Crosby said the system acted out of economic necessity and maintained the same range of medical coverage.
To avoid further court action, Catherine Nugent Panepinto, the North District member of the Board of Education, urged a negotiated settlement in which the system would agree to rehire about 20 teachers laid off during the health insurance dispute.
The union had asked the courts to order the rehiring of the teachers but was rebuffed. The Court of Appeals declined Thursday to reconsider that request.