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School District, teachers union need to grab today’s opportunity to reach agreement

It’s good news that the Buffalo School District and its teachers union have stepped back from the brink of crazy and, potentially, better still that they may be moving toward a resolution of their ancient contract dispute today.

That will depend on the degree to which each side is willing to give something up to get what it needs.

Teachers are certainly overdue for a new agreement. They have been operating under the terms of an expired contract since 2004, due partly to the union’s own intransigence. The failure to produce an acceptable pact over 12 long years is surely among the reasons that longtime union President Philip Rumore barely won his most recent election.

Even still, some fear that teachers might go out on an illegal strike if they did not win a new contract. It’s a threat the district had to take seriously, since Rumore did that very thing in October of 2000, earning him a stint in jail.

Perhaps the new threat was a negotiating ploy. Sixteen years later, at age 74, it seems doubtful that Rumore would relish a return to the pokey, but district officials say they have laid contingency plans, anyway. That was wise even if it turns out to be unnecessary, as students, teachers, parents and taxpayers have to hope.

There can be no dispute that teachers deserve a new contract, including an increase in pay that reflects in some way the years they have worked without an agreement. But the district is out of balance. Under terms of the expired contract, which remains in force, managers cannot deliver the best possible education to Buffalo’s underserved students. Any new contract needs to take account of those issues and others that inhibit education.

Among them are:

• The district’s ability to assign teachers to schools where they are most needed: Management needs to be able to manage, fairly and professionally. The district is now handcuffed in its ability to deploy its human resources to maximum advantage.

• A longer school day and school year: This is required to improve education and to make Buffalo students competitive not just with others around the state and nation, but in an increasingly small and competitive world.

• Insurance changes: The Buffalo Teachers Federation has already said it was willing to drop the costly and unwarranted elective cosmetic surgery rider as part of an overall contract, but more needs to be done to control the costs of health insurance.

Rumore will never have a better chance than he does today to nail down a contract that is beneficial to the union’s members. In Superintendent Kriner Cash, he has a serious and professional bargaining partner who wants teachers to have a contract that is fair to all. A majority of the board supports his approach.

Rumore won’t get everything he wants, and if that is the test for avoiding a strike, then batten down the hatches. But the district won’t get all it wants, either – not in a fair contract that acknowledges that for everyone to win, everyone must also lose a little.

The good news is that on Wednesday both sides were expressing at least some degree of optimism that they could come to a mutually satisfying agreement. That was a turnaround from the previous week’s pessimism and hints of a strike that would punish students, damage the reputation of teachers and likely send Rumore to jail.

Buffalo may soon know if the sides were able to complete a task whose outcome could benefit all concerned, including – especially – students whose education relies to some degree on a focused and committed corps of teachers.

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