The Buffalo Teachers Federation today turned down a request from a State Supreme Court justice that they agree not to go back on strike until a criminal contempt-of-court case against the union is resolved.
In a swirl of legal developments, Justice Kevin M. Dillon this morning told BTF leaders he will grant an adjournment of the contempt case if they assure him that school will not be disrupted in the meantime.
Dillon asked the union to give him an answer in court Tuesday morning, but the BTF instead turned down his request just hours after a brief court session today. The proceeding today was designed as an arraignment for BTF President Philip Rumore and three other BTF officers who face the possibility of fines and jail terms if found guilty of violating Dillon's no-strike order by orchestrating a strike last Thursday.
Dillon -- who has criticized the teachers for striking during previous court proceedings -- initially said today that he would hear the contempt charges Thursday morning.
When attorneys for both the BTF and the city asked for an adjournment of the hearing, Dillon said he would grant it if the union agrees not to strike in the meantime.
Union officials said that decision has to be made by its executive committee, and initially agreed to return to court Tuesday with an answer.
Instead, they turned down the offer in a letter to the judge that noted that city attorneys already are seeking minutes of BTF executive committee meetings to use in the ongoing legal proceedings.
"Obviously, (they) hope to use the subpoenaed materials to help 'convict' the BTF and various individuals of criminal contempt," said BTF attorneys Robert W. Klingen-smith Jr. and K. Michael Sawicki. "We cannot ask the committee to put itself or any of its individual members at further risk. Anything any of them might say or any statement the committee might issue could be deemed an admission or be construed as condoning or advocating a strike."
Dillon said the offer to adjourn the case reflects his feeling that court proceedings in the case have a broader goal of hastening a "fair contract" and "protecting the interests of the children of this city."
No specific date was mentioned for an adjourned hearing, and it was not immediately clear how Dillon will respond to the letter.
Meanwhile, Buffalo Public Schools opened as scheduled today while the system and teachers union braced for what both describe as a crucial, make-or-break week of negotiations.
Talks could resume as early as Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the state Public Employment Relations Board presents proposals designed to end the teachers strike, said Paul G. Buchanan, president of the Board of Education.
"I think this week is crucial," he said this morning. "The focus has to be on getting this resolved and getting it behind us. I expect that they (negotiators) will get right to it."
Rumore expressed a similar sense of urgency.
"If this doesn't bring things together, I don't know what will," he said.
Rumore said the union's executive committee will meet Tuesday to review the state report and the status of negotiations.
The School Board will meet as early as Wednesday and could vote on a contract if negotiators agree to one by then, Buchanan said.
But the state agency's ability to bridge the gap was put in doubt Friday when Buchanan said Adam Kaufman, the state mediator most directly involved in the talks, is too closely tied to the union and has "outlived his usefulness."
This morning, Buchanan raised the possibility that the deadlock could continue, prompting a new level of impasse and state fact-finding.
"I think we're probably at an up or down point," he said. "If we're close, I think it will settle. If not, I think we'll take it to the next level."
Rumore said further PERB proceedings would be time-consuming and simply cover the same ground. PERB, he said, has been just as demanding of the union as it has been of the school system.
"To suggest we go through mediation, fact-finding and conciliation is a just a delay," he said. "It doesn't serve anybody's interest."
City teachers have pledged that they will remain on the job at least through Tuesday while PERB attempts to help settle the labor dispute, which has resulted in students losing three days of school.
But for parents still seething about having their children stranded Thursday when teachers decided shortly after 7 a.m. not to report for work, Rumore has a message: Ask the School Board why busing was suspended the morning of a strike.
"There has been much said by the district relating to providing day care or some education for students, but once again the district wants to blame the teachers rather than running the buses and providing the services for the small number who might need them," Rumore said.
In a one-page news release issued Sunday, union officials said parents should ask the board why they have no assurance that -- even if school is closed -- buses will run and children will be picked up if they are at a bus stop or if parents are unable to secure day care.
"The only reason the kids are stranded at the bus stop is because they have turned their buses around," Rumore said. "The board has been beating up on us because we've had late meetings. They're saying teachers are to blame because parents can't find day care or children are stranded out on bus stops."
Andrew Maddigan, a spokesman for the school district, said bus runs were not altered.
"There were no kids left on street corners," he said.
Buchanan agreed with Rumore that the district shouldn't alter its morning school buses. But, it wouldn't have to if the teachers are in the classrooms, he said.
"The buses should roll as normal, I agree. The teachers should be in school as normal. The students should be learning as normal," Buchanan said.
The board president said the union's suggestion would be moot if teachers would follow the law and report to class.
Buchanan followed by issuing a stern admonition and warning to the teachers union.
"The BTF, I believe, has already caused educational harm to the children. But, if one single child is physically injured because the BTF is going on strike, I will personally make sure they will be brought to justice to answer to that abuse," Buchanan said.
Maddigan dismissed the union's statement as an attempt to gain some weekend leverage in the media. "This is Phil trying to grab headlines on a Sunday. It's typical distortion that this (suggestion) is somehow a better solution," he said.
Maddigan said youngsters who are picked up on the early bus rounds are taken to school and tended during the school day, unless the proper parent or legal guardian picks them up sooner.
"The second round of buses do not pick up the kids because by that time the announcement (of the strike) has been widely made," Maddigan said. "By no means do they turn around and drop kids back on the bus stop. We work closely with the parents, and they understand we're in a crisis when teachers don't show up for work."
News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.