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The Buffalo School Board's decision to set aside $5 million as a hedge against a future back-pay settlement for teachers already has drawn criticism as too little, too late. Critics miss the point. This is a watershed moment in a lengthy dispute that could carry enormous consequences for the city.

Had the School Board begun setting aside cash for a settlement of the 1990-1994 back-pay dispute some years ago, there might now be more money on the table to jump-start settlement talks. But even more importantly, this first-ever budget line represents concrete recognition by the board that it's time to prepare to pay up.

"We know we are going to owe something, and it would be wise to begin setting something aside," said School Board president Paul Buchanan.

Actually putting aside money for a settlement is an even more solid step than the initial district settlement offer rejected by the teachers' union. Different interpretations of a back-pay calculation formula still leave the School Board and the Buffalo Teachers Federation far apart. The district figures it owes $23 million, while the union claims about $180 million in back pay is owed its 1990-1994 members.

In September, a judge sided with the union in its basic arguments. Instead of setting an amount, though, he urged both sides to negotiate a reasonable settlement.

Doing so quickly would be in the best interests of the district because uncertainties over the size of this financial hurdle would end. It also would be in the best interests of affected teachers, some of whom are aging or retired, because it would put some money in their pockets. For taxpayers and the city, it remains important to put this contract-negotiation fiasco behind us and turn energy and resources back into education.

The downside of the board's decision is that the $5 million -- whether it's a major chunk of a $23 million payment or a pitiful start on $180 million -- could impoverish those educational efforts. "It will impact, in some areas, the classroom," Buchanan noted.

Given the district's limited resources, that should come as no surprise. It's one reason that past boards didn't set aside cash, and it may mean this attempt won't survive the budget process. The board has proposed a 12.3 percent increase -- from $455 million to $511 million. With that kind of spending hike, that set-aside may be targeted for trimming, even though the state foots much of the district's bill and spreads the pain to more than just city taxpayers.

If the spending hike survives, the $5 million shouldn't make much of a dent in instructional spending. But the eventual settlement or court ruling, whatever its sum, will have a much greater impact on funding aimed at the classroom.

It's good to see the board accepting greater responsibility and contemplating at least some action in acknowledging back-pay accountability. The next step is likely to be a settlement counter-offer in January by the teachers, who won good pay raises in the years after the 1990-1994 debacle but need a just and reasonable end to a dispute that has lasted far too long.

Reaching accord is a process that will test the dedication of both the board and the union, not to mention the mettle of teachers, who will know that part of the cash headed toward their pocketbooks has been diverted from their pupils and classrooms. But it needs doing, and the sooner those talks begin in earnest, the better.

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