Buffalo School Board President Paul G. Buchanan sent an unauthorized plan for reaching a settlement in the contract lawsuit to the teachers union Tuesday, infuriating some other board members and stunning district officials, none of whom he consulted in the move.
In the letter, which he also sent to Superintendent James Harris, Buchanan urged that a number of outside parties ranging from the governor to the Common Council president meet with district and union officials in the next month to discuss a settlement. Buchanan also wrote that the district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation should dismiss their attorneys and hire new ones as they embark on a strict schedule of settlement discussions.
Although Buchanan wrote that the district should appeal last week's State Supreme Court ruling that could grant the teachers $180 million in back pay from the 1990-1994 contract, he recommended that the appeal be viewed more as a formality while the parties address the settlement. He also proposed a number of concessions that the district should make over the next five years as a show of good faith, including the addition of two board members, one each to be appointed by the union and the education commissioner.
Under Buchanan's plan, settling the back-pay dispute would be tied to reaching a five-year contract with teachers.
"I'm doing this individually, as one of nine," Buchanan said Tuesday. "I'm trying to move the discussion forward. I'm putting this out there as an elected board member for discussion. This is not a settlement proposal from the board to the BTF."
The decision that prompted Buchanan's letter came last week from State Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath Jr., who ruled that the district must follow the union's interpretation of a formula for calculating the back pay in the contract dispute. The district's interpretation set the amount at $22 million; the union estimated it at $180 million.
With the district still reeling from the shock of what some have called the largest judgment ever awarded to a teachers union in the United States, district officials and board members have been silent about their next moves. Board members -- including Buchanan -- had declined to comment, and the district's
attorney, Karl W. Kristoff, had issued only carefully worded, neutral pronouncements about the ruling.
Tuesday, all of that changed, and some district officials and board members initially were at a loss for words as they learned that Buchanan had sent the letter without consulting either the board or Kristoff.
"I think that Paul can fantasize as much as he wants, but we operate as a board," said board Vice President Jack Coyle, who called Buchanan's solo actions "extremely dangerous."
Central District member Jan Peters was even more succinct.
"Wow," she said slowly when told about the letter. "I can't believe it."
"This should have been shared with us!" an angry East District member Marlies A. Wesolowski exclaimed. ". . . He should have picked up the phone and called me. This is very risky for him to do this."
North District member Deborah E. Bang said she believed that Buchanan "meant well." But she also said she told him Tuesday, after learning about the letter, "When you do stuff like this, you're going to be on your own, buddy."
At-large member Donald A. Van Every tried to strike a conciliatory tone, saying, "I don't mind the idea that he put something out there. I would have preferred to hear about it first."
Philip Rumore, the BTF president, said the union views any offer of assistance as a positive sign.
"I would point out, though, that this comes from only one member of the board, not the whole board," Rumore said. "Unless there's an authorization for a dollar figure, it's very difficult to come to closure."
Rumore made short work of Buchanan's suggestion that the union replace its attorney, saying he is quite pleased with the BTF's lead counsel, Robert H. Chanin.
After conferring with his senior staff members, Harris issued a brief statement.
"We have just received this document, and we are reviewing it," he said. "Due to the delicate nature of our negotiations, it would not be proper for me to comment further at this point."
While Buchanan did not recommend a settlement amount, he did propose that $12 million immediately go to the teachers while the parties decide how the rest should be paid. The district could ask the state for special legislation to authorize the issuance of judgment bonds -- something that the city currently cannot do for the district, because the district is a separate entity from the city -- or, the district could use the interest from state aid payments as a source for the back pay, Buchanan said.
The $12 million could come from existing board funds and the $8.9 million in state reimbursements for special-education programs that the district is waiting to receive from the state. That money has been delayed because the district missed a reimbursement application deadline last winter, and Buchanan has proposed that the state accelerate the reimbursement so it can be used toward the settlement.