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IT IS IRONIC, and more than a little disturbing, that the first group to criticize the call for Buffalo school-system changes that would save a projected $188.5 million would be the teachers union.

After getting a $74 million wage package that the city really couldn't afford, the Buffalo Teachers Federation should be coming to the table with at least an open mind and a willingness to help the district save money.

That's particularly true when the recommendations from the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission tried to focus on changes that won't hurt the educational program or be unfair to workers.

But instead of projecting a constructive spirit, union chief Phil Rumore warns that teachers are "starting with great suspicion."

What is the crux of the union's complaint? Not so much the content of the report. Beyond one or two examples, it can't really complain about that yet because union leaders and most others haven't even had time to digest the voluminous document.

Instead, the BTF seems to be upset because it was treated just like every other interested party. It was not allowed to sabotage the effort before it was completed.

The union complains it was denied the names of volunteers who drafted the report and wasn't given a copy prior to its release. But why did the BTF want commission members' names?

In polite terms, it would be to "provide input." In blunter terms, it might be to lobby, strong-arm and otherwise try to pressure the volunteers to water down or remove any proposals teachers might not like -- such as one that would push them into cheaper health-care plans.

The union certainly deserves the right to press its case -- but at the appropriate point. If the commission had the power to implement the changes it recommends, the BTF would have a legitimate complaint.

But the commission doesn't have that power. It is just one interested -- albeit highly credible -- group concerned about the schools. It has merely presented its case to the community and school officials.

Now the union has the chance to do likewise. It was not shut out of the process of implementing change because that process hasn't started until now, and the union can -- in fact, must -- play a key role in it. Changes ranging from extending teachers' in-class hours to economizing on health care all will require union cooperation.

Any changes that truly threaten the school system or workers should be exposed and opposed. But the union will have far more credibility with the public if it approaches that critique in the spirit of open-minded cooperation rather than appearing to try to undermine the process before it ever gets off the ground.

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