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Buffalo teacher contract meeting helps ‘narrow the issues’

Negotiations for a new Buffalo teacher contract will resume next week after district and union leaders spent about five hours Friday trying to hammer out a new agreement.

“It was a productive meeting,” said Nathaniel J. Kuzma, deputy general counsel and lead negotiator for the district. “We were able to narrow the issues and we are scheduled to meet next Tuesday and Wednesday.”

“Our intention is to get this done, hopefully by next week,” he added.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore could not immediately be reached for comment.

The negotiating restart followed a tumultuous few weeks in this latest round of bargaining.

After Rumore walked away from the bargaining table last week, and then called masses of teachers to a rally at City Hall, Superintendent Kriner Cash presented the district’s proposal to the public.

Rumore has already scheduled a meeting for Oct. 17, when he said he expects to have an agreement for teachers to vote on. If not, he said, they will have to begin exploring other options.

With contract talks coming to an abrupt halt, and the threat of a teacher strike looming, Rumore and Cash met one-on-one Tuesday in an attempt to reconcile differences. Both emerged and said they would resume talks on Friday, and district officials indicated they were optimistic they could reach a settlement.

At the heart of the negotiations is compensation. The union is focused on salaries while the district says health insurance and other benefits are earnings, too.

The union wants bigger paychecks for teachers to make up for the 12 years they went without a pay bump – although most teachers did receive annual step increases – but the district says it can’t afford the sum the union proposes.

The district’s last proposal included a 10 percent pay hike upon ratification, a 3 percent increase the next year and a one-time bonus of between $2,000 and $7,000 based on seniority. The district also wants to modify the school day and year for added instructional time, and wants teachers to pay 10 percent of their health insurance.

The union has argued that teacher salaries lag behind other districts and that a 10 percent hike is unacceptable considering proposals for a longer day and school year. The union is agreeable to teachers paying a dollar amount toward their health insurance, but not a percentage and not the 10 percent proposed.

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. Added to that is the strength of the state’s Taylor Law and Triborough Amendment, which lock public employee contract terms in place until both sides can agree on new ones. Some have argued that gives the union, which now has strong benefits, little incentive to make concessions.

The school district and union have a long and tumultuous history when it comes to negotiations, one that has regularly included outside mediators and occasionally resulted in illegal strikes that at least once landed Rumore in jail.

It has not been unusual for such talks to drag on for years. But the 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 enacted. Rumore has estimated the wage freeze and court ruling cost the typical teacher $81,805.

The verdict sent 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 superconciliator – the last step outlined in state law to resolve a contract dispute – but were unable to come to an agreement.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com

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