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Buffalo teachers, district are close to a deal on contract

The clock is ticking until Buffalo teachers meet with the expectation of voting on a new contract, but district and union leaders have not yet agreed on a deal to present to them.

Both sides said Friday it is their intention to finalize a deal when they resume talks at 4 p.m. Sunday, and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore reiterated that they are close to a deal.

But there are no guarantees.

"We significantly narrowed the issues, but still have a few things to work out," Rumore said. "It can't be resolved until we do that."

Meanwhile, the Buffalo School Board scheduled a meeting for 4 p.m. Monday to discuss the contract and Rumore was requesting all teachers to convene at Kleinhans Music Hall that evening.

"We are hopeful that the meeting will be to ratify a new contract," Rumore wrote in a memo to teachers. "We will do everything we can to have a tentative agreement emailed to you prior to the meeting."

The contract talks have been particularly tense in recent weeks as the two sides attempted to find common ground on the key issues of teacher salaries, work rules and health insurance.

[Related: BTF sets Monday meeting in hopes of voting on new contract]

The tension has largely revolved around a disagreement about how teachers are compensated. Rumore has concentrated on salaries, putting forth proposals that aim to get teachers compensation for the years some of them worked under the expired agreement. The district, however, has pointed to the fact that Buffalo teachers enjoy lucrative benefits, including fully covered health insurance.

Over the course of negotiations, the district has proposed giving teachers a 10 percent raise and a bonus to make up for the time working under an expired agreement. In exchange, it wants a longer school day and year.

The union has said it would be willing to accept an agreement in which teachers pay a set amount, as opposed to a percentage, for their health insurance premiums. It also wants the district to credit teachers for the years worked during the wage freeze, which would also bump pay up.

Part of the holdup is likely the question of how the new contract will be paid for. District officials have expressed concerns about locking themselves into recurring costs they might not be able to afford in the long run.

Members of the local legislative delegation have indicated they are willing to lobby for additional funding to help pay for the deal, but this week the Cuomo administration warned district officials not to count on extra money.

[News education reporter Tiffany Lankes discusses teacher contract negotiations on Press Pass]

The last contract expired in July 2004, months after the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority enacted a wage freeze, which the union challenged in court. The freeze meant that teachers did not move up the salary ladder laid out in their contract.

That challenge lingered in the court system well after the freeze was lifted in 2007 and 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 an 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.

Since then, Superintendent Kriner Cash has taken over as superintendent and cut ties with a controversial attorney brought in by the former school board majority to take a hard line on negotiations. The school board election - in which the union invested significant resources - resulted in an upset of control on the board and an ideological shift among its members.

Meanwhile, both sides have faced mounting pressure from teachers and political leaders to finalize a deal.

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