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The contract dispute between the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the Buffalo School District comes down to a simple "yes" or "no" tonight.

The state Public Employment Relations Board is submitting a proposal to the two sides this afternoon and expects an answer within hours.

"This is not just another piece of paper," Richard Curreri, the director of PERB's office of conciliation, said Monday. "It is supposed to be an entire package proposal, which will be treated as an entire package. Which means, the BTF will say yes or no, and the district will say yes or no."

Adam Kaufman, the PERB mediator who has played a key role in the negotiations since last fall, declined to comment on what he will suggest if either side rejects the proposal.

"Actually, I think we are hopeful that in the next 36 to 48 hours, we can help the parties find common ground," he said.

PERB mediators cannot compel the two sides to negotiate, and state law does not grant binding arbitration to school district contract disputes. Nor can any other legal authority force a resolution on the two sides. The dispute could go to a fact-finding hearing, but in the end, only the district and the union can settle the contract. PERB declared an impasse in the talks in December.

In a related development today, State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon scheduled a Thursday morning contempt-of-court hearing against Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and three other BTF officers.

Dillon stressed to the union leaders that his order prohibiting a strike remains in effect until then, and that "I fully expect that the order of the court will be adhered to."

However, union officials offered no guarantees that the teachers will not strike. Rumore has said that they will show up through today.

On Monday, Dillon attempted to schedule the contempt hearing for Thursday, but attorneys for both the BTF and the city asked for more time to prepare. The judge said he would grant the adjournment if the BTF agreed not to strike while the contempt case was pending. The BTF turned down that request.

This morning, Dillon met privately with attorneys in the case and then -- with little comment in open court -- scheduled the hearing for Thursday, as he originally intended to do.

The BTF and its officers face possible fines and jail terms if they are found guilty of violating an earlier order from Dillon prohibiting a strike, which is illegal under the terms of the state's Taylor Law. A teachers strike last Thursday was held after the order was issued, and the city then filed contempt charges.

Talks broke down Wednesday, and the teachers walked out for the second time in a week Thursday. Negotiations have not resumed.

"This is still a crisis situation," Kaufman said Monday.

The mediators' proposal comes at a time when Paul G. Buchanan, president of the Buffalo Board of Education, questioned the impartiality of PERB.

"PERB is, right now, as far as I'm concerned, communicating with us through (BTF President) Phil Rumore and press releases," Buchanan said Friday. "Right now, I feel we're being back-doored."

Monday, both sides offered cooperative, if cautious, outlooks.

Andrew Maddigan, the district spokesman, said Monday that "we are open-minded, certainly to any proposals they would put forth."

Rumore said, "We're just hoping the proposals we see tonight are at least reflective of the ones the superintendent and their chief negotiator put forward Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon, especially on salaries." Similar conditions in the mediators' proposal would be "a good start," he said.

Last week, however, Buchanan and Superintendent Marion Canedo denied that Canedo and the district's chief negotiator discussed specific proposals and said Rumore prematurely seized on very tentative ideas they discussed.

Leaders on both sides spent time Monday consulting with their staff in preparation for today's review of the proposal. PERB planned to give the document to the parties late this afternoon, and representatives of both sides will meet to discuss it, Kaufman said. Those representatives then will take the proposal back to their leadership, with Kaufman and Curreri waiting for responses.

The Buffalo Board of Education will hold a special meeting tonight. The BTF did not announce a meeting, but it is expected that the union's executive committee will also meet to review the proposal.

At stake are very different concepts of how much the district can afford to give. With 40 percent of the approximately 4,000 Buffalo teachers expected to reach the minimum retirement age of 55 within five years, the benefits to retirees have become almost as important in the contract talks as raises to working teachers.

The district -- which spends upwards of $10 million a year on health insurance for retirees -- wants more retired teachers to pay a portion of their premiums and appears firm on that position.

The district has gradually come up on its salary proposals. Two weeks ago, the district was still talking about a four-year contract with 2 percent raises in three of those four years, which would have cost the district about $27 million on top of the annual 2 percent "step increases" that go to all but the most senior teachers.

In the past few days, the district has come up to a four-year contract with a 3.5 percent raise in the second year and 2.5 percent raises in the third and fourth years -- a proposal that would raise the cost of the increases to about $30 million over the four years, Maddigan said.

The step increases continue even during contract negotiations, because they are built into the contract that expired in June 1999. The district says the step increases average out to a 2 percent annual raise, on top of any raises negotiated into a new contract.

Kaufman, the mediator, said, "Our goal, from day one, from Labor Day, was to keep the schools open. Our goal has always been to keep the process going, to get the two parties to reach a mutual agreement."

News Staff Reporter Peter Simon contributed to this report.

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