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City Honors, district in talks over non-academic duties for teachers

Teachers at City Honors School no longer would have to monitor the cafeteria during lunches or supervise study halls or keep watch at the front sign-in desk. Those are daily, routine duties required of most teachers at every other Buffalo school.

Instead, Buffalo Public Schools would be forced to pay nearly $600,000 a year to hire teacher aides to handle those and other non-teaching responsibilities at City Honors.

No other school in the district has that arrangement.

But that’s the outcome of a grievance the teachers union filed seven years ago and settled in 2016 by an arbitrator, who sided with the Buffalo Teachers Federation on what had been a long-held practice at the city’s top-performing public school. The school district challenged the ruling, but it was upheld in State Supreme Court.

There’s a catch.

The school district – questioning the fairness of spending extra money on a privilege granted only to teachers at City Honors – says it could  cut roughly a half dozen teaching positions from the school on East North Street.

While those cuts would make up for the cost of hiring aides, it would create other problems for City Honors. Class sizes would grow with fewer teachers, some electives would need to be eliminated.

No one wants that.

So district and union leaders have huddled in recent days in an effort to negotiate a solution before the court forces the district to take action.

“The superintendent and I have had a discussion and think it’s something that can be settled,” said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

The district made an offer to give City Honors teachers a modest, one-time cash payment in exchange for resuming non-teaching duties, a proposal Rumore presented to City Honors teachers during a recent meeting after school.

The union president called it a “good beginning” and told the teachers to think it over before he presents the superintendent with a counter offer.

“It seems to be a genuine willingness to work this out,” Rumore said. “I think the teachers at the school, as well as the BTF, are committed to finding a solution to the problem without starting World War III.”

Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, hopes Rumore is right.

Transferring a half dozen teachers would be a “major disruption” at City Honors, the superintendent said, and he’s eager to work out a solution.

But, Cash said, the parameters are tight and the conditions have to be reasonable.

“We think it’s a fair proposal,” said Nathaniel Kuzma, the district’s general counsel. “We’re willing to answer any questions that the teachers have and hope to do that next week.”

Known for its International Baccalaureate program that stresses higher standards and critical thinking, City Honors is considered one of the best schools in the area – if not the United States. With a graduation rate of 98 percent last year, the school regularly makes U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best schools in the U.S.

But a spotlight has been on City Honors as of late, as the district faces public scrutiny on its admissions practices at the school and the disproportionately low number of black and Hispanic students.

Public input sought on fixing racial disparities at City Honors

African-American enrollment dips at City Honors, despite efforts to correct disparity

Now, this arrangement with teachers at City Honors only adds to the public perception – whether true or not – of further privilege at the school, home to nearly 1,100 students in grades five through 12.

“We think it’s bad practice,” Cash said of hiring the aides only for City Honors. “It creates an inequity across the other 17 high schools that we have. That’s a huge concern for me.”

Under their contract, Buffalo teachers historically have been given up to two non-teaching duties a day, Kuzma said. Most in the district do have non-teaching assignments, some more than others depending on the school, Rumore said.

But at City Honors, teachers traditionally were exempt, a practice dating back to its opening in 1975.

Why, exactly, is not clear.

The hope, district officials said, was that students at City Honors would benefit from greater independence and less supervision in what was a much smaller program, at the time. City Honors also wanted its teachers spending more time in the classroom, Rumore said.

But as the school grew over the years, the district was forced to hire a contingent of “general” teacher aides at City Honors to supervise students – in the cafeteria, in study halls, in common areas.

By 2005, the district was paying $350,000 in annual salaries and benefits for general aides at City Honors, an expense never afforded to other schools, officials said.

The school district cut those positions gradually and eliminated them altogether in 2010. Teachers were forced to pick up non-teaching duties, sparking the grievance by the union.

The district challenged, but the arbitrator’s ruling was upheld by State Supreme Court Justice John F. O’Donnell last spring.

Since then, both sides have appeared before the judge on a few occasions and were due back on Wednesday to discuss progress on implementing the arbitrator’s decision.

But district and union officials have asked the court for more time in light of recent discussions.

City Honors would need 16 aides to handle the non-teaching responsibilities at the school at a cost of $571,000 in salaries and benefits, according to the district.

City Honors has 88 teachers, less than half of whom were at the school when the grievance was initiated.

The five or six teachers cut from City Honors would most likely be transferred if there are vacancies at other schools or they can bump a less senior teacher in the district, but that scenario – and any ripple effects it might have – isn’t completely clear.

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