A Buffalo teacher hired in 1980 at the entry-level salary of $11,324 earns at least $36,216 today, a tripling of the salary under four negotiated contracts.
When negotiations for a new four-year contract stopped 32 months ago, the teacher was earning at least $34,136, if the teacher held a master's degree as state regulation requires.
The 3,900-member Buffalo Teachers Federation, in more than two years of litigation, has fought to push all teacher salaries up another 35 percent over the life of a four-year contract.
And it has won court and state arbitration panel orders requiring the Board of Education to "execute" a four-year contract that would, on paper, increase teacher pay more than one-third. The union claims the court ruling implies that the district must fund the raises but the board disputes that claim. The board is attempting to appeal.
Outside of court, where the teachers union fights the School Board through public relations campaigns using billboards and speeches, the teachers maintain they are paid too little.
The School Board's position is that no matter how favorably disposed toward teachers, it cannot fund a 35 percent raise. The cumulative cost over four years is estimated by a city budget analyst in the Department of Administration and Finance at $142 million.
As of now, that money does not exist in the deficit-ridden city.
"Our city is inundated by poverty-level people," said Board President Mozella Richardson.
Trying to fund the raise would require slashing the school system's staff and programs beyond what many parents would accept, said Marlies Wesolowski, East District board member.
"Those of us who could move would probably be moving out," she said.
Teachers nonetheless insist that they are underpaid and underappreciated, and that the board's reluctance to give them new raises proves that.
But an examination of the teachers' financial condition since 1980 shows a pattern of regular raises resulting from past negotiated contracts.
Even without a new salary schedule, half of the teachers -- the younger half -- have received about $1,000 a year in annual salary gains built into the "steps" previous contracts created.
"Anything that increases your salary from one year to the next is a raise to me," said Mrs. Richardson.
After 15 years of these step raises, teachers receive increments every two years until they have worked for 31 years.
When they reach their mid-50s, under a recent pattern, the Board of Education often offers them sweetened early retirement so they can be replaced with younger teachers who don't have to be paid as much.
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the focus must be only on what Buffalo teachers are paid compared to other persons with similar educational levels, not on increases in the cost of living or on the lack of city and board revenues.
"The city, county and state are going to have to come up with the money," he said.
The median level Buffalo teacher in 1990-1991 earned $3,210 less than the state median, $42,082, but was ahead of the median teachers in 47 states.
Complaints that teachers have not had a raise since they left the bargaining table in 1990 ignore the automatic increments, said the budget analyst, who declined to be named.
For example, all city teachers with fewer than 15 years of service -- even without a revised agreement -- received annual hikes of $1,025 a year for three years. The older teachers, with biennial increments, received one or two raises of $1,025 each, depending on their year of hire.
A teacher hired in 1980, if holding the master's degree now required for state certification, received increases that boosted his salary to $35,176 for the 1991-92 school year, and to $36,216 for this school year.
"It's hard to cry poor . . . when you are getting 300 percent more in 10 years," the budget analyst said.
The teacher in the middle, with 15 years' service and a master's degree, is progressing better and faster than the median city household, including the total wage and salary income of all household members 15 or older.
In 1980, the median city income was estimated at $15,140 and the median suburban income at $20,795.
The median city teacher in 1980 earned $20,750, and his income as an individual was $9,157 greater than the income of all members of the median city household.
In the next 10 years, the median household income reached $18,482. The median teacher salary reached $38,872, an increase of $18,122.
The teacher who started at the bottom in 1980 is now almost at the middle or median salary.
"All those teachers, as soon as they get permanent appointments, move to the suburbs," Mrs. Richardson said.
Without a degree, a Buffalo police officer -- who also has the right to live in the suburbs -- will advance by June 30, 1995, to $41,723 after four years of service. The officer in 1992, as the result of a contract imposed by binding arbitration, reached a base of $34,564, plus an additional 10 percent in show-up time. The new contract absorbs the show-up time into base pay, provides no raise this year, but includes raises of 4 and 5 percent in the next two years.
After four years, a police officer works 47 40-hour weeks and receives four weeks' paid vacation. A teacher works a maximum 37.2 weeks with the day contractually set at 6.5 hours, resulting in a 32.5-hour contractual week.
If teachers eventually win the raises, the median teacher would earn $54,000, or about 2.7 times more than the median city resident and almost twice as much as the median suburban resident earns in a year.
A teacher employed by the city for 19 years wrote to The Buffalo News recently, arguing that he should be paid comparably to suburban teachers.
"Twenty-three years ago I chose teaching as a career and profession," said the teacher, who now lives in Williamsville. "I expected to be fairly compensated."
When the Board of Education in 1986 lifted the residency requirement, many teachers moved to -- or were hired from -- the suburbs, where more than half now live.
At-large School Board member David B. Kelly rejects the contention that salaries paid by a poorer city should reflect the incomes of employees of suburban districts or teachers living there. But he emphasizes it is not a question of deserving or not deserving.
"We're not talking about the merits of employees," Kelly said. "We're talking about affordability. I don't think it has ever been a commandment that all government employees should be paid the same. We cannot afford to pay what other municipalities pay."
But the Williamsville resident's letter said that he wants pay from the Buffalo board that he considers commensurate with his education.
"Regardless of Mr. Kelly's opinion, I never took an oath of poverty," he said.
According to records, at this point, the teacher who wrote the letter, with his master's degree and in his 19th year of employment, is earning $40,952 or more for the 186 6.5-hour days he is paid for.
If he teaches summer school, he would earn an additional $200 per day for four or more hours work. Under the raise sought by the teachers union, his income next year would rise to at least $55,331. He would earn approximately $46 an hour.
Rumore asserts that teachers did poorly from 1978 through 1980 when, he said, they received a year without any raise followed by two years of 4 percent raises.
A teacher who started at $9,586 in 1976 today should be earning $40,952, if he has a master's degree. That would be a 316 percent increase, compared to a 125 percent increase in the cost of living. Each additional hour of graduate credit means another $63.40, or $634 for 10 hours paid annually.
If the teacher who started in 1976 just got raises at the inflation rate, he would be at $22,000 today.
"I think the urban districts are much more difficult to teach in than the rural or suburban," Kelly said. "We are also one of the few places that hire. We are the only opportunity for many young graduates.
"We have a legitimate financial problem," he added. "Nobody has been willing to bring a solution to the table in the school district."
Mrs. Wesolowski predicts that the answer will come from the court. She hopes to work for a solution with the teachers where they will feel rewarded but the cost will not be at the expense of city children.