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RUMORE'S FLEXIBLE STANCE OFFERS SOME HOPE FOR CITY

PHIL RUMORE said he'll read the report.

He said he'll read it and respond.

Some of the responses might even -- egad! -- be favorable.

"From what I've heard," said Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, "there are some suggestions that are good."

This amounts to a giant leap forward in recent labor-management relations in this city.

In fact, it's a giant leap from what Rumore said Thursday.

Maybe there's hope for this city after all.

Maybe.

When a blue-ribbon panel suggests ways the public schools can save money, the consensus response ought to be "thanks." Or, at least, "let's talk about it." Particularly when panel members, mostly business people, worked without pay.

That may actually happen in some cities, but they're as far from Buffalo as Oz.

For two days, the president of the teacher's union called the report "tainted," and said it would "be viewed in a negative light." All because the union wasn't involved in it.

"You don't draw up a report in isolation," explained Rumore. "There will be some weaknesses because of that."

Maybe so. But that's the price paid for an independent panel.

The point is, you deal with conclusions; you don't red-flag the whole operation on procedural grounds.

The report is a feast for discussion, particularly given the city's looming $25 million deficit. The short list of topics includes high school teachers spending less than four hours daily in the classroom, sick leave and health benefits that outpace the private sector and antiquated computers.

As the husband of a Buffalo teacher, I have more insight into the stresses of the job than most. Particularly for those working in an underfunded system loaded with poor kids from broken homes.

And, yes, there are reasons for Rumore to feel backed against a wall. He's up for election in May, the mayor blasted last year's contract settlement as unaffordable and education-friendly Mario is no longer in Albany. Despite outside pressure to cut costs, some tunnel-vision teachers remain bitter about the disputed 1990 contract.

But let's get real.

The school administration and Board of Education both take hits in the report, but were open-minded about it. And they, like the union, didn't help to write it.

A handful of principals contacted said much of the report -- particularly on health benefits, sick leave and teachers' classroom hours -- was on the mark.

"There's got to be some compromise on retiree health benefits," said Gregg Hejmanowski, principal of West Hertel Academy. "I'm retiring soon myself, but it's obvious that, the way it is now, it will eventually bankrupt the system."

Other principals, who belong to a union separate from the BTF, are more pointed.

"Most of what's in there, we all know it has to be done," said one high school principal. "There's no (administrative) game plan, not short-term, not long-term.

It's worth noting the principals didn't give the BTF high marks for flexibility.

"The BTF is an anachronism," said one. "Labor and management may be light years apart at the UAW, but at least they recognize they have to work together."

Said another high school principal: "Both the district and the union represent the old system. They prevent you from having the flexibility you need in the school . . . I expect the union will just dig in and fight (any changes) to the end."

Granted, the report isn't perfect. Among the apparent contradictions is taking teachers off cafeteria and study hall duty, but cutting teacher' aides. Who's left minding the lunch line?

"We don't have to swallow the report line and sinker," said Hejmanowski. "But it should be a starting point. We need to get beyond saying, 'No, this isn't in the contract, we can't do it,' and start looking at what's good for the district and the kids."

This report is merely the first of a few. A five-part Buffalo News series begins tomorrow, followed by a University at Buffalo study.

If they're all ignored, there's a fair chance we'll end up like Cleveland.

That city's school budget got so out of hand, the state of Ohio took over this month.

In an era of economic stagnation, high taxes and deficit-plagued governments, schools must be lean, efficient machines.

That's what this report is about.

"We haven't closed the door on the report," Rumore said. "We're willing to sit down and talk. The things that have to be negotiated, we'll look at negotiating them."

In fact, added Rumore, "I don't think the report went far enough. The whole structure at City Hall should be changed, we need a bottom-up management supported by the administration."

Rumore's words suggest an open mind and a flexible stance.

It's a giant leap forward.

Maybe there's hope.

Maybe.

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