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New school district negotiator, Rumore’s thin victory may prompt productive contract talks

It has been plain for a long time that something different needed to happen if contract negotiations between the Buffalo School District and its teachers union were going to go anywhere. With the hiring of Terry O’Neil, the board has done that – for the second time.

O’Neil is a lawyer from downstate who specializes in public-sector labor bargaining and has a record both of success and controversy. Buffalo already is a hotbed of controversy. It would be nice to add success to the equation.

Teachers have been working without a contract since the last one expired in 2004, although they have still qualified for step raises. Many of them have, no doubt, become frustrated with that situation, as documented by Saturday’s election for president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. While longtime President Philip Rumore was able to snatch a victory, he did so with only 51.8 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. He avoided the need for a runoff election by fewer than 35 votes. Almost half the district’s teachers, it seems, were ready for a change.

Perhaps that will augur well for negotiations with O’Neil, for whose efforts the district will pay $350 an hour. It certainly is possible to hammer out a new contract that serves – and pinches – all parties. That’s the hallmark of good negotiations under difficult circumstances. Everybody gives something to get something.

O’Neil had success here in the past, but only after negotiations precipitated an illegal teacher strike for which Rumore spent a few days in jail. That occurred in 2000, but ultimately led to the contract that expired in 2004. If that suggests that O’Neil can be a hardball negotiator, so does his reputation in other school districts, including Yonkers.

That isn’t necessarily a problem. The BTF is as obstinate a negotiating partner as anyone is likely to encounter among public-sector unions, so toughness on the other side is not only desirable, but necessary.

But hard-nosed doesn’t have to mean unfair and, in fact, shouldn’t. When School Board member Carl Paladino says O’Neil’s arrival signals that “We’re done playing games,” we hope it means that O’Neil’s task is to produce the best possible contract while recognizing that teachers also have legitimate issues.

For them, the issue is mainly a raise, but could also include the contours of their health insurance package. For the school district, flexibility on scheduling and work rules is important, as is the matter of health insurance, including the existing rider that gouges taxpayers for elective cosmetic surgery by union members.

Somewhere in that mix is the makings of a deal, assuming both sides really want one. If teachers were to win a retroactive raise, their incomes could take a significant jump. But it will depend upon their willingness to give something up.

And there is a fair question of how much the union – or, at least, the union leadership – really wants a contract. Just this September as the new school year began, Rumore led a union rally demanding a new contract. But teachers are still getting step raises, even without a contract. They still have a generous health insurance policy, even without a contract. And state labor law protects those provisions, even long after the expiration of the previous contract.

It is entirely possible – and from a certain perspective, even logical – that the union would prefer the status quo to a contract in which it gives up control over issues such as the length of the school day and school year, staffing levels, seniority rights, teacher training and other matters.

But nearly half of the union’s members expressed their dissatisfaction with Rumore’s leadership last week. They want something different. It is up to O’Neil and the School Board to offer something of value to the teachers with the hope that the union leadership is sufficiently primed to come to the table and bargain.