The latest battle between Buffalo Public Schools and its teachers union could throw a wrench into the start of school just four weeks away.
The Buffalo Teachers Federation sued the district for unilaterally changing the start times at three schools, leading to a judge's order last week that no changes be made until the matter goes before the state education commissioner.
That leaves in limbo the start times at D'Youville Porter Campus School on Porter Avenue, Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, and Dr. Lydia T. Wright School of Excellence on Appenheimer Street.
But because the school district had already built the time changes into its transportation schedule, this last-minute development also could wreak havoc on busing across the district.
The district's legal counsel is still weighing its options.
"There is definitely a challenge coming – and coming fast," Shauna Strom, assistant legal counsel for the Buffalo Public Schools, said of the court decision. "There is a sense of immediacy."
The three schools in question are in "receivership," meaning they are low-performing schools under the direct control of Superintendent Kriner Cash, who was given broad powers to improve them. Cash notified the schools in the spring that the start of their day would change come September.
The start times at D'Youville and Lydia Wright would be pushed back about an hour, from roughly 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., while the start time at Charles Drew would only be pushed back about five minutes.
The union countered by filing a lawsuit.
The district said the move was made to better align bus schedules and assure there are enough drivers and buses to accommodate the extra 25 minutes that will be added to the school day at all district schools.
The union, however, argued the decision to change start times at the three schools was not about improving student performance, but instead, was based solely on saving money – about $4 million in transportation costs.
And that, the union argues, falls outside the scope of the state's receivership law.
State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister released a written decision Friday that punted the issue back to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
The proceeding is "stayed," Bannister wrote, until the commissioner can determine whether the schedule changes were for the purpose of student achievement and appropriate under the receivership agreement.
This 11th-hour twist was an unpleasant surprise for the school district, which in April notified teachers and families at the three schools of the time changes. Switching back to their original times at this late date would likely be very difficult and expensive because it would require putting more buses on the road.
"Legally we're exploring our avenues with those very issues," Strom said.
BTF President Philip Rumore, meanwhile, said the union tried to work with the district for two months in the spring to modify the schedules at as many as 15 schools so it could save money.
"Instead of continuing to work with us, the superintendent and district decided to shove the schedule changes down the throats of parents, teachers and students," Rumore said.
Rumore also speculated that this issue could have statewide implications.
The union argues that the receivership powers given to the superintendent were granted under the previous BTF contract and are no longer in effect since a new contract was ratified last October. That, Rumore argued, would require the district to go through the procedural process of receivership all over again, which could take awhile.
The district disagrees.