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The Buffalo school district claims it owes teachers $21 million to settle a back-pay lawsuit, a far cry from the $192 million sought by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Lawyers for the district and union have filed legal briefs with State Supreme Court Judge Edward Rath in anticipation of oral arguments Sept. 8. Rath is being asked to decide how much money teachers are owed.

The State Court of Appeals ruled in December 1996 that the district must honor a 1990 contract settlement, but the two sides have been unable to agree how much money teachers have coming to them.

The union is asking Rath to declare a judgment against the district for $192 million to cover back pay and interest. The district contends the union's position is based on a misinterpretation of an agreement in 1994 that established a formula for providing back pay if the union won its lawsuit. The district also maintains that no interest is due.

"There is a misinterpretation of the settlement agreement by the BTF," said district attorney Karl Kristoff. "They're not entitled to any judgment worth $192 million. That's the bottom line."

Union President Philip Rumore counters that the district's position employs "the most tortured logic and use of the English language that I have read in a long time.

"We are obviously convinced that our interpretation will ultimately prevail."

The heart of the dispute centers on a clause in a 1994 contract agreement. At that point, the district had been on the prevailing side of court decisions in the back-pay suit, but the union insisted on carrying the case forward.

The contract agreement established a formula for how teachers would be awarded back pay in the event they ultimately won the case. The two sides now disagree on how that clause revises pay schedules.

Judges said in their 1996 ruling that the district's actions, which included 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.

Union, district and city officials subsequently tried without success to negotiate an out-of-court settlement to determine how much teachers are owed, but the parties never came close to agreeing on a figure. Instead, they've opted to let the courts settle the dispute.

The district had previously said it owed teachers somewhere between $9.5 million and $60 million. The union has consistently held at a figure closer to $200 million, which Rumore said is increasing by $1 million a month in interest.

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