Criticism of Buffalo School Board President Paul G. Buchanan's pitch to negotiate an end to the dispute over more than $100 million in back pay for teachers was a blunt reminder that the issue won't be resolved soon.
Buffalo School Board President Paul G. Buchanan wanted state, county and city officials to sit down with school officials and the teachers' union to negotiate a settlement on the $100 million-plus judgment for teachers' back pay. He wanted the meeting within 30 days.
It looks like he will be waiting a while.
One by one, state legislators, state agencies, county officials and Mayor Masiello have distanced themselves from Buchanan's call, issued Tuesday.
Offers have been made to help if and when the union and school system begin talks. But no one is specifying what form that help might take. Vague suggestions have been made that the state might contribute some money to the settlement, although no one will say how much.
But so far, no individual or agency outside the school system has promised to be a key player in resolving what everyone agrees is a crisis: a court judgment that could exceed $150 million.
"Can the State of New York ignore it?" asked State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew. "You bet your life you can't. We're going to cooperate. We're not going to solve it for them."
Buchanan issued his call for action in a letter to Superintendent James Harris and Philip Rumore, President of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
His proposal for settling the lawsuit would draw on state and city assistance, and his suggestions for a repayment plan include special bonding legislation, lease-back deals on school buildings and using interest from state aid payments to the schools to help cover back pay for teachers.
Buchanan's actions also sparked a major controversy. He apologized the next day in an executive session of the Board of Education for his unauthorized letter to the teachers union. One colleague described that session as "a trip to the woodshed."
Volker described the Sept. 13 ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath on calculating the back pay as "frightening" and said it has come at the worst possible time for expecting state help.
"We're cutting taxes," he said. "Here comes the City of Buffalo with a huge problem that goes back to the late '80s. I think the difficulty here is most of the legislators are afraid. They don't want people to think they can throw themselves on us and we'll help them out."
Nor does Volker see the state playing a major role in the negotiations, as Buchanan suggested in an ambitious timetable that envisioned a settlement within four months.
"We want to cooperate," Volker said. "It seems to me, though, that the initiative for this is going to have to come from the School Board. We didn't create this problem."
That's pretty much the stance of the city, which will not contribute money to the settlement and, therefore, will not play a key role in the negotiations, Mayor Masiello said.
"I find it very, very difficult to believe that we can contribute financially to resolve this case," the mayor said. "The real crux of the problem is the size of the award. I cannot jeopardize future services and capital projects for something that we weren't responsible for."
The county is also backing away from any involvement. In a letter to Harris and Rumore, Buchanan suggested Erie County could divert some of the $548 million from its share of tobacco settlement toward settling the pay case.
Hardly, said Michael P. Hughes, a spokesman for County Executive Gorski.
"Obviously, he'll take it into consideration," Hughes said of Gorski. "But he's been steadfast that this should go for property tax relief and to retire the county debt."
Gov. Pataki's office declined to comment on Buchanan's suggestion that the governor participate in the initial settlement meeting. Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, did not return repeated messages seeking comment on Buchanan's letter.
The state Education Department is unlikely to assume any role in the settlement other than "technical assistance or advice," spokesman Bill Hirschen said, because the department considers the judgment a local matter.
A spokesman for state Comptroller H. Carl McCall said that "it's premature at this point to know what the role for the comptroller's office would be."
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, sees good reason for the seemingly deafening silence in response to Buchanan's call for help.
"Whenever you have something that is causing you to gag in your throat, it causes you to not make any sound, and this is a lot to swallow," Sanders said.
Sanders plans to visit Buffalo sometime in the next two months to talk with leaders here about the schools. The settlement is not the only reason for his visit, but has added a sense of urgency, he said.
Sanders also said Eve called him Wednesday and asked him to plan the visit "in reference to this and the overall problems Buffalo has."
The state might be able to contribute some money toward the settlement, Sanders said, but that probably won't even be discussed until budget talks open in January.
In short, Sanders said, "I don't know how definitive we can be at this point."