There’s been a nice, long period of noticeable calm between Buffalo schools and their teachers, a stretch that goes back as far as the fall of 2016 after the two sides reached a new contract.
But over the past few weeks, labor peace has gone out the window.
Whether it’s over student discipline, new school leadership or the duties of teachers at City Honors School, the school district and its teachers union – a relationship notorious for its acrimony over the decades – are back to butting heads.
And all is back to "normal."
“I think we’ve seen this before,” said Kriner Cash, Buffalo schools superintendent, “but we just have to work through it. I don’t think it’s a movement. I just think they’re trying to work through things that are all happening at the same time.”
“There’s always going to be periods of relative calm and periods of unrest,” said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “In all my years here, it’s going to be that way.”
Some of this feels oddly similar to the Buffalo schools of seven or eight years ago, when district officials and the teachers union clashed and talked to each other through the media, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, a parent group.
What’s different now, Radford said, is that the district is in a different place than it was then, after making strides on numerous fronts the past couple years – graduation rates are up, suspensions are down, teachers have a new contract, the district has a strategy moving forward.
Radford is worried the union is making a deliberate attempt to stir things up and that the relationship between the district and BTF will revert back to what it was in the old days. Recently, Radford called on Rumore and the union to work more collaboratively with the district so it can continue to make progress.
“What doesn’t feel good from a parent perspective is that the good work we’re doing now is at risk of being sabotaged or sidetracked,” Radford said. "If the problem is as bad as Phil is saying, why are we seeing an increase in academic performance across the board?"
The brewing labor issues include:
Simmering for awhile, the issue boiled over last week when the BTF released results of a teacher survey that showed nearly a third of the 1,200 who responded thought student behavior is out of control or nearly out of control. The union is concerned that bad student behavior is going unaddressed in schools.
“This is not anything that’s negative against the district,” Rumore said. “It’s an honest assessment of what’s going on. We want to work together to make sure that kids have a good learning environment, and for the kids who do exhibit disruptive behavior, how do we alleviate that?”
The district, meanwhile, questioned the results of the survey and why the union would release it publicly without first discussing it with the district.
“Of course we have some behavioral issues, but I haven’t seen it nearly on the level that is reported by this survey,” Cash said. ”The only question I have for Phil is to make sure he represents all the teachers, because the vast majority of teachers I talk to are in a good place of where the district is right now.”
Arguably the most contentious issue right now, the district and teachers at the school are at odds over “non-teaching” duties.
The district wants teachers at City Honors School to handle such responsibilities as monitoring lunch and study hall – like teachers at every other Buffalo school do. Meanwhile, teachers at the school, who have long been exempt from those duties, fought the district on legal grounds – and won.
Now, the district has hired aides to perform those non-teaching duties at City Honors, but plans to cut 5.5 teaching positions at the school to pay for them.
Both sides have exchanged proposals and counterproposals to prevent the teacher cuts, but there has been no resolution. The BTF has hinted it will seek to block the cuts in court so a mediator can get involved.
In some cases, underlying tensions have involved a host of new, young administrators taking over at schools and being tasked with the job of raising academic standards.
Teachers at School 18, for example, went before the Buffalo Board of Education in December citing problems at the school on West Avenue and seeking the removal of new principal Aakta Patel.
And at McKinley High School, teachers called for a vote of “no confidence” in acting principal Marck Abraham.
The superintendent, in both cases, expressed faith in the principals, but it’s an issue likely to pop up again elsewhere.
“Sixty-seven percent of my principals and assistant principals are in their first three years of the profession,” Cash said, “and I’d like to see more patience and support in working together to help those novice school-based leaders grow in their profession.”
Cash and Rumore said the recent labor strife hasn’t changed their relationship.
“It’s the same as always,” said Cash, noting he gets two or three calls a day from Rumore. “We’ll continue to talk and continue to work through issues that are sensible. If they’re not, Phil and I will just continue to disagree.”
“We have our ups and downs,” Rumore said. “We have our disagreements and that’s OK. I still believe he’s trying to do the right thing – although we disagree on some of those things.”
Both leaders also said they continue to want the same for the district.
“There are always going to be differences,” Rumore said. “There have been and always will be conflicts, but we are still committed to working with the superintendent to find solutions to them.”
“I want to work through issues and problems rather than exacerbate issues and problems,” Cash said. “There’s too much goodwill going on in our city for public schools – and I want to keep that goodwill.”