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Buffalo teachers rally over stalled contract

The latest go-round in the 12-year saga over a new contract for Buffalo teachers hit yet another snag this week when the union walked away from the bargaining table and sent swarms of teachers to rally Wednesday outside City Hall.

Bargaining had been moving forward and the two sides met as recently as Tuesday in efforts to reach a new contract, to replace one that expired 12 years ago.

But talks broke down, representatives for the Buffalo Teacher Federation walked out and no future meetings have been scheduled.

The two sides still seem far apart and the rancor spilled over into the Board of Education meeting Wednesday at City Hall.

“Twelve years is too long,” said Philip Rumore, union president. “What is on the table is an insult.”

“We appreciate his fervor,” responded Superintendent Kriner Cash, “but we respectfully disagree that we have proposed anything that would ever be insulting to teachers.”

A few of the main bargaining issues:

• Health insurance: The district is proposing teachers pay 10 percent of their premium.

The union is agreeable to having teachers pay some dollar amount toward their health insurance, but not a percentage and not the 10 percent proposed.

• Wages: At the crux of why negotiations broke down.

The district is offering a 10 percent pay hike upon ratification of the contract, followed by a 3 percent increase the next year. The contract also would include a onetime bonus ranging from $2,000 to $7,000.

In addition, the district has proposed bumping up starting teacher salaries to attract teachers to the district, said Nathaniel Kuzma, the district’s deputy general counsel.

Kuzma called the compensation package proposed by the district “fair and competitive.”

The union, however, is interested in beefing up the middle and upper end of salaries, which Rumore says lag behind other districts.

As for the 10 percent raise, the union argues that teachers have been without a contract for 12 years, which would make for a raise of less than 1 percent a year.

Also, the district’s proposal doesn’t include any retroactive pay, a sore point for the union.

• Attendance incentive: The district’s latest offer proposes bonuses based on teacher attendance to address concerns about teacher absenteeism.

One of the problems with that, Rumore said, is it discriminates against female teachers having children or teachers using personal days for religious holidays.

• Changes in work rules: Among the changes, the district wants to bump up the number of teacher work days to 188, up from 186. That’s unsuitable for the union based on the compensation the district is offering.

• Lower class sizes: The union said the district still hasn’t addressed concerns about the need to lower class sizes across grade levels.

• Case loads for guidance counselors, social workers and attendance teachers. The number of case loads recommended for guidance counselors is about 250 students, but some in Buffalo carry case loads of as many as 500, Rumore said.

In short, district officials said the value of the union’s proposal is more than double what is being proposed by the district and they can’t afford it.

The teachers union called a rally outside City Hall Wednesday, drawing the president of the statewide teacher union and a huge crowd of teachers who filled Niagara Square.

The rally numbered at least several hundred, but union leaders pegged the crowd at a few thousand.

Rumore called it one of the largest rallies in BTF history.

“Why?” Rumore said. “Teachers are angry.”

Rumore, who was hoping to hammer out a new contract within the first month of the school year, called an all-teacher meeting for Oct. 17 with anticipation of having a contract proposal to present.

Cash said the district is willing and eager to get back to the bargaining table, but the ball is in the union’s court.

These talks are just the latest in what has been an ongoing saga to renew the contract that has spanned a time period marked by significant changes in the economy, education policy and district leadership, including a revolving door of superintendents and school board members with starkly different priorities. It has not been unusual for such talks to drag on for years, but this latest stretch is the longest delay in recent history, in part because of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority’s enactment of a wage freeze just months before the last teacher contract expired in July 2004.

A challenge from unions lingered in the court system for years, well after the freeze was lifted in 2007. The issue was not resolved until 2013 when a federal judge ruled not only was the freeze justified, but that the district did not need to give teachers credit on the pay scale for the years the freeze was in place.

Rumore has estimated the wage freeze and court ruling cost the typical teacher $81,805.

The verdict sent the district and union leaders back to a bargaining table around which much had changed. They brought in a mediator who in August 2013 proposed a new salary scale that would give teachers $18,712 in retroactive pay and salary increases. In exchange, teachers would have to start paying 10 percent toward their health insurance premiums.

Rumore rejected it.

The following year the outside fact-finder issued a new proposal, which Rumore said would be acceptable, but the district rejected.

The two parties then worked with a super-conciliator, the last step outlined in state law to resolve a contract dispute, but were unable to come to an agreement.

email: jrey@buffnews.com

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