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District’s lucrative offer to BTF deserves a serious response, not hints of a strike

Negotiations on a new Buffalo teachers contract have taken a nasty turn with hints that a strike might be in the offing. Besides being illegal, that would be incredibly destructive for the district and its children. The Buffalo Teachers Federation must categorically rule out a work stoppage.

The union has been without a contract since 2004. Teachers want and deserve a new contract, but it has to be fair to both sides.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Kriner Cash, the district put forth a contract offer any neutral observer would have to call lucrative: a 10 percent pay increase upon ratification of the contract, followed by a 3 percent increase the next year and, in addition, a onetime bonus ranging from $2,000 to $7,000. In return, the district seeks work rule changes and wants teachers to pay 10 percent of their health insurance premium, which would amount to about $1,900 a year.

Private- and public-sector employees cast covetous eyes on the pricey health coverage for teachers, “deluxe plus deluxe,” as one district official aptly described. No payment, no deductible and a cosmetic surgery rider. There is only a nominal contribution for retirees.

The BTF has complained for years that Buffalo teachers are falling behind their suburban counterparts. It is a complaint lodged without regard to the district’s more-than-generous benefits: health insurance, a short school year and school day, an additional 17 days off during the school year, with major and minor holidays thrown in.

District officials have proposed hefty pay hikes from the top to the bottom of the scale. Teachers on the highest salary step would get an additional $12,000, bringing their pay to $86,000.

But because the school district does not have an unlimited money spigot, the district is asking for modifications that will help in the education of the city’s children. The district wants to lengthen the school day from 6 hours and 50 minutes (the shortest school day in Erie County) to 7 hours and 30 minutes.

The short day shortchanges the city’s mostly poor schoolchildren. Instead of the extra help they need, they receive an average of 35 minutes less instruction per school day compared with other districts in the region.

When combined with two fewer school days per year than other districts in the region, the district concludes Buffalo Public Schools students lose 16 days, or about three weeks, of school learning time each year compared with their regional peers.

Fewer hours in the classroom puts Buffalo schoolchildren squarely behind the educational eight ball. That, in turn, affects the local economy when businesses are looking for educated, skilled workers to fill jobs.

Another change the district needs is more notice of retirement. Right now, teachers can wait until one day before the start of school. That makes it almost impossible to hire good teachers. The district is proposing 60 days notice, but even that would mean the best applicants would already have gone elsewhere.

The union is not easy to negotiate with. In one example, union negotiators agreed to give up retroactive pay so those dollars could be used elsewhere. At a later session the retro pay became a demand again. BTF President Philip Rumore walked out of the most recent negotiating session.

The BTF says it is concerned for the city’s children. Certainly teachers are concerned about the children, but the BTF is devoted to extracting as much as possible out of the school district without regard to the effect on education.

Teachers should look over the entire contract proposal, and compare it with suburban contracts before deciding. The proposal provides the basis for productive negotiations on an overdue contract. The BTF should get back to negotiating.

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