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AGREEMENT ON BACK PAY STILL ELUDES BOARD, TEACHERS

Nine months after New York's highest court ruled that they are owed millions of dollars in back pay, city teachers they are still waiting for the checks.

It appears that they're in for a long wait.

The city, the school district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation have not made any substantive progress in determining how much teachers are owed and when they'll be paid.

The union maintains that teachers are owed $171 million plus interest. City school officials say the district owes teachers as little as $9.5 million, and no more than $60 million.

Whatever the debt, the two sides have held only a couple of face-to-face meetings since the court issued its ruling in December and none since late last spring.

The parties had agreed to interview several financial consulting firms in hopes of hiring one of them to help sort through the issues. But that effort was stalled when the city decided to seek its own adviser.

Karl W. Kristoff, the School Board's attorney on the case, said the parties made a "genuine effort" to find a mutually agreeable arrangement, but to no avail.

As a result, the union and the city are working to secure independent firms, and the district is waiting to see precisely what the city's consultant is hired to do before deciding on a course of action.

"We know generally what the city's notion is, and it seems to us that logically we should work in tandem," Kristoff said. "But until we see the detail, the board wants to reserve its right to do something else."

BTF President Philip Rumore said he would like to see the pace of discussions quicken.

"I think everyone would want to see things moving," he said.

The city and the board should have the added incentive, he said, noting that interest is accumulating on the amount owed to teachers.

"Our calculations show it's $1 million a month in interest," he said. "Even if it's a fraction of that, nine months have gone by."

Any amount close to the union's estimate could wreak havoc with the already shaky finances of the district and, by extension, the city.

Teachers stand individually to gain thousands of dollars, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars, in back pay.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the district must honor a contract negotiated in 1990 that called for pay raises totaling 35 percent over four years.

The court ruled that the district's actions -- including the failure of its chief negotiator to act in good faith to try to win ratification of a deal he had bargained, plus a vote several years later by the board to approve the contract but not fund it -- amounted to "bait-and-switch" tactics that left teachers at a disadvantage.

The union, the district and the city face two challenges:

They have to agree on the amount due.

They need to find a way of funding the settlement.

"We're trying to be deliberate and settle this in a way that will avoid further acrimony and litigation," Kristoff said.

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