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THE TEACHERS' CONTRACT

Buffalo's parents and taxpayers should not overreact to the recent inflamed rhetoric from the Buffalo Teachers Federation. The union, and its leader, Phil Rumore, are doing what unions and union leaders always do, threatening drastic action that, they hope, will increase the pressure for a contract settlement. The contract with the district's teachers expired June 30. Angry over the lack of a new agreement, the union has authorized its leaders to do whatever is necessary to get a contract, including a strike. Rumore, to emphasize the threat, said, "People are ready to take drastic action."

Such action seems unlikely, and Rumore would be better advised to tone down the rhetoric for a variety of reasons.

Although the old contract has expired, its terms remain in effect until a new agreement is reached. So almost all teachers will be getting step increases of about 2 percent. So the claim that teachers have no contract is somewhat disingenuous.

As for the veiled threat of a strike, teacher walkouts, even "rotating strikes," are illegal under the Taylor Law -- a statute that provided substantial power to teacher unions in return for the no-strike provision. It seems unlikely that teachers would want to suffer the devastating financial consequences of a strike like the 1976-77 walkout that cost them two days' pay for each day they stayed out of the classrooms.

Now is not the time for rash action by either side. This is the time, during contract talks, when every effort should be made to avoid protracted and costly legal conflicts down the line. That's what should have happened in 1994 but didn't.

The consequences of that mistake -- which entails how much the district owes the teachers from the disputed 1990-94 contract -- threaten the fiscal health of the city and district. The union says the district owes $200 million in back pay, the district claims it's liable for $23 million.

Although he denies it, several people in the community say Rumore privately has stated that he doesn't expect a new contract until the disputed 1990-94 contract is settled. If that's the case, his strident rhetoric does a disservice to his membership.

Both sides are awaiting a ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath on the matter. Regardless of the outcome of that ruling, an appeal is a virtual certainty, which means another year to year and a half of waiting.

Sources close to the board say it is unlikely it will make a firm monetary offer until it knows what the district's liability is from the 1990-94 contract. Teachers, meanwhile, are understandably irate at the prospect of protracted negotiations that can't be consummated because of the court case.

Such things make for extremely difficult negotiations. And while those complex talks are going on, both sides need to act responsibly for the good of the city and, more importantly, the children.

Buffalo's 4,000 teachers have taken a good first step by going back to the classrooms and opening the school year without either a contract or a solid prospect of one.

Board members make a valid point when they say it would be irresponsible to make a monetary offer when they still don't know how much they owe from a previous contract. That said, the board, which sets contract parameters and ultimately ratifies or rejects the agreements reached by the school administration's negotiating team, should make sure contract talks are as substantiative and speedy as possible.

Above all, both sides should remember that they're dealing with more than numbers or clauses. They're dealing with the welfare of the city's children.

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