Some of the key players in settling the Buffalo teacher contract dispute may not be sitting at the bargaining table.
They’re in the State Legislature.
Settling the impasse inevitably will cost tens of millions of dollars, money that district officials say they don’t have. But the vast majority – 84 percent – of the district’s budget comes from the state, meaning taxpayers across the state will heavily subsidize any increases in teacher compensation. To help settle past contract disputes, the state has stepped in with additional funding on top of the district’s annual allocation.
“One way or another, they’re going to have to come up with the money to settle it,” said R. Nils Olsen Jr., chairman of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, which monitors the district’s budget. “I suspect the state will have to kick in to bring the two parties together.”
Several members of the local legislative delegation, who have close ties with the teachers union, already seem on board with lobbying for more funding for a settlement.
“I’m not independently able to make that kind of commitment, but I assure you that it’s important to the state to have a settled contract,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “If there are some areas where we could help, we should see if we can step in and do that.”
District and union leaders met Friday in an attempt to hash out a deal, and both sides have indicated they are close to reaching an agreement.
The district previously put a proposal on the table that would cost $93.8 million over the next four years.
The union countered with a plan costing $220 million during that time period, an amount that included significant retroactive pay for teachers.
Whatever resolution the two sides can agree on will likely fall somewhere in the middle.
Publicly, district officials take a conservative approach with their offers, saying they can’t count on assistance from the state, as the union’s plan does.
“We have to settle based on the resources we have,” said Geoff Pritchard, the district’s chief financial officer.
But district representatives also met privately with members of the local delegation who say they are aware there is a possibility of extra support.
“I’ve had conversations with Phil Rumore, I’ve had conversations with Kriner Cash,” said Senator Tim Kennedy. “From my perspective, I think everyone shares the same sentiment. It’s in everyone’s best interest to get this contract dispute settled and I will do whatever I can on my end to make sure this gets settled in the most appropriate manner. That includes advocating for more resources.”
Of course any help from the state depends on whether local representatives can garner enough support from their colleagues in Albany, a seemingly tough sell given that the Buffalo Public Schools are already the most heavily subsidized in New York.
A few key factors could bolster their argument, though. Peoples-Stokes is a close ally of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who has backed her on other significant issues, including the appointment of her choice candidate to the state Board of Regents.
Rumore and his parent union New York State United Teachers also have strong ties to the Assembly, where they invest heavily during elections. Members of the local delegation, along with union-endorsed candidates, joined teachers last week during a rally outside City Hall to push for a new contract.
It also wouldn’t be the first time the state stepped in with money to help settle a Buffalo teacher contract stalemate.
During one dispute in the early 1990s, Rumore blamed school board members for failing to lobby the state for enough money to pay teachers the retroactive pay they were promised in an earlier agreement. The union took the district to court over the issue, triggering a series of rulings that ended in the teachers’ favor.
Rather than face a possible judgment of more than $100 million, the district negotiated a $73 million settlement to the lawsuit that included a $45 million financial aid package from the state.
“I think there is a possibility the state will give them some money,” Rumore said at the time. “If anybody has good rapport with the state, it is Sen. (Anthony M.) Masiello and the Western New York delegation. I think the State Legislature realizes this is a problem.”
Any state bailout now, however, would likely draw criticism from residents outside of the city whose property taxes largely finance their own school systems.
Part of the reason the Buffalo schools are so heavily subsidized by the state is because the city contributes so little, even at a time of significant economic development. The city contributes $70 million – about 8 percent – of the district’s revenue. The state contributes $714 million, about 84 percent.
By contrast, in nearby Rochester, a similar-size urban district, the city contributes $119 million, or 17 percent. That district still receives a significant amount of state dollars – $539 million – that make up 79 percent of its revenue.
“You have to keep in mind that Buffalo gets the highest per pupil allocation from New York State and there’s every sign that will continue,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan. “New York State provides the lion’s share of this budget and I’m confident that will continue.”
Those in favor of giving the district additional resources, including dollars to help settle the contract, say it’s critical for the entire region for the city to have a strong school system. And that includes a competitive contract that will attract good teachers.
“The problem is that there will be all of these suburbs that would love to have more money for teacher salaries,” Olsen said. “But it really is intolerable for the district to go this long without a new contract. I really do believe that it requires enormous skill, effort and commitment to work in urban schools. Until they get a contract, and until they can treat each other as partners, it’s going to be very difficult for those teachers.”