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In the wake of a court ruling that largely backs the Buffalo Teachers Federation in a back-pay dispute, the union has called for the district to reach a fair settlement of the court case rather than appeal.

If the union's definition of "fair" is an insistence on getting close to $200 million in back pay, then the future of the district, and its ability to provide a quality education for the city's children, is in jeopardy.

However, if by "fair" the union means taking a lesser amount, then perhaps the city can finally get out from under this financial Sword of Damocles.

The ruling is almost certain to be appealed. Nevertheless, reaching an agreement remains the best way out of this mess. Both parties have to find a way to balance the legal award to teachers with the school district's ability to pay.

That won't be easy. No settlement can be allowed to meet past problems by crippling the future of an already beleaguered city. Any stretching of resources that closes schools, decimates the ranks of teachers or exacts a steep price from schoolchildren challenged to meet tougher new Regents standards will be unacceptable.

The ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath failed to define the school system's debt. That's largely because of the complexity of the case. It's clear, though, that the amount will be far closer to the $192 million claimed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation than the $22.5 million computed by the district and offered as a settlement last year. While Rath sided with the district on some side issues, he favored union interpretations of the key payment formula.

The state and federal governments are adamant in spurning suggestions of bailouts. And should the district be forced to pay a judgment anywhere near the amount claimed by the union, bankruptcy -- while certainly not inevitable -- would become an option.

The union should be aware that bankruptcy could be used to preclude any back-pay disbursement to teachers and negate the union's contract with the district.

Both sides have a strong incentive for reaching a fair settlement. Defining this debt and retiring it would help ensure financial stability for the city and district. As for the union, a settlement would end a long and divisive battle and put some money in its members' pockets.

It could be argued that some compensation already has reached teachers. After the board rejected the 31 percent pay raises negotiating teams had bargained for the 1990-94 years, it approved a 26 percent raise over the next two years in a vain hope of settling the dispute.

Teacher salaries in Buffalo have had to remain competitive with nearby systems, and today's median salary of $55,000 is higher than the median salary in nine other Erie County districts. However hard the BTF wants to push for back-pay justice and future improvements, this is not a case of easing current hardships.

The BTF's executive committee has asked the district to focus on a settlement instead of an appeal. That's well worth exploring, but the union must cooperate with enough flexibility to allow a monetary settlement that doesn't bankrupt the system -- or force Buffalo's schoolchildren to pay the price.

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