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UNION OKS ARBITERS' PLAN; BOARD TO VOTE

Buffalo schools opened this morning as the Board of Education prepared to vote tonight on a five-year contract recommendation that includes teacher pay raises of about 13.5 percent and a requirement that retirees pay portions of their health insurance premiums.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation, the union representing the city's 4,000 teachers, announced late Tuesday night that it had accepted the take-it-or-leave-it proposal crafted by state mediators and has tentatively scheduled a ratification meeting of city teachers for 4 p.m. Friday.

The School Board will meet at 6 p.m. today to vote on the proposal.

"There's no doubt in my mind we will vote tonight," said Paul G. Buchanan, Board of Education president. "We are going to have our staff cost it out so we can get answers to our questions and make a reasonable decision."

Mediators with the state Public Employment Relations Board had asked both the board and the union to give their answers Tuesday night.

But Superintendent Marion Canedo, emerging from a 3 1/2 -hour closed-door board meeting at 11 p.m. Tuesday, said there just wasn't enough time to decide.

"We're working on it," she said. "Our board and all of us feel we do need more time to look at the figures."

Under the proposal, teachers would get raises in four out of five years, but retirees would start paying for their health insurance.

The five-year proposal would be retroactive to July 1, 1999.

Teachers would get a 2 percent raise retroactive to July 1 and another 1.5 percent next Jan. 29; an additional 2 percent on July 1, 2001, and 1.5 percent in January 2002; 2 percent more on July 1, 2002, and 1 percent the following January; and 2 percent on July 1, 2003, and 1.5 percent in January 2004.

In rough terms, that equates to a 13.5 percent raise over five years.

Buchanan made no prediction on how the board will vote tonight but said board members were troubled by the restriction that they must either accept or reject the plan, with no room for bargaining.

"That, universally, is the one thing everybody responded negatively to," he said. "After 10 months (of negotiations) and two strikes, PERB says: 'Here it is, take it or leave it. You have no more options.' " The mediators gave their proposal to the union and the district Tuesday night. The two sides then went into separate, closed-door meetings.

The BTF's executive committee endorsed the plan in "a close vote," and a ratification meeting of the union's general membership will be held 4 p.m. Friday in Kleinhans Music Hall if the board approves the pact tonight, Philip Rumore, BTF president, said this morning.

"It's a fair contract settlement," he said. "In my opinion, it goes right down the middle. I think the majority of teachers will accept it."

What action will the BTF take if the board turns down the pact?

"I'd rather talk about it going through," Rumore said. "I don't think we even want to contemplate that not happening. We have to put this behind us and move on."

PERB describes its proposal as a compromise designed to end a conflict that has resulted in schools being closed three days this month and that has produced criminal contempt-of-court charges against Rumore and other BTF officers for violating the no-strike provision of the state's Taylor Law.

"This five-year agreement would provide an important period of healing after what has been a contentious and sometimes acrimonious collective-bargaining process," mediators Adam D. Kaufman and Richard A. Curreri wrote to Canedo and Rumore in a letter accompanying the proposal.

"Both sides need not be reminded that maintaining a quality school system . . . is integral to the viability of the City of Buffalo," the mediators added, in language that evoked the recent tensions and the two days of strikes this month. "We believe it is time for the parties to redirect their energies to that task."

The proposal makes it clear that if the two sides accept the recommendation, both would have to give, and that neither side would get everything it wants. The mediators closed their letter by telling Canedo and Rumore: "We expect the parties to accept and adopt the proposal in its entirety."

However, the proposal remains a recommendation. It is not binding on either side.

The union had wanted a five-year contract, and the district favored a four-year agreement. At one point, the district had suggested the idea of splitting annual raises into six-month segments.

Insurance benefits for retirees had been one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations, with the district saying it could no longer afford upward of $10 million a year in medical costs for its former teachers.

Under the proposal, teachers who retire with at least 15 years of experience will pay for their health insurance in three of the five years. A family would pay $660, $790 and $950 in each of those three years, from 2001 to 2003.

A retirement incentive for teachers ages 55 to 57 would remain, but the formula used to calculate the payout to retirees would be altered to reduce the district's costs. Figures on how that change would translate into dollars were not available Tuesday night, but the district says there is a pressing need to lower the cost of the retirement incentive. This year, the district paid slightly more than $8 million to teachers who took advantage of the lump-sum benefit.

The union has said the retirement incentive actually saves the district money in the long run, because it frees up teaching slots that can be filled by younger teachers hired at lower salaries.

One area where the district clearly prevailed deals with providing social services to students. The district wants the right to contract with outside agencies to come into the schools and provide counseling or other services to students and their families. The union has objected, saying the district should hire more permanent employees to be social workers, school psychologists or counselors.

The mediators recommended that "Buffalo Public School students and their families may be provided with family therapy, psychiatric counseling, medication evaluation and other social services that are not being performed by Buffalo Public School personnel."

The mediators also recommended that the district commit to providing instruction in art, music and physical education in the primary grades during the contract period, without recommending a permanent commitment to those costly programs.

The union wanted art, music and gym guaranteed beyond the life of the contract. Though the Buffalo Board of Education voted last month to begin restoring the programs next year, board members have said they cannot promise to provide them permanently.

Rumore said some executive committee members objected to the health-care cost-sharing and to the failure of the proposal to make art, music and physical education permanent contract provisions.

Buchanan said the PERB proposals make substantial changes in several areas.

"The variables have been changed, and the values have to be recalculated," he said. "We're still looking at the financial impact of the whole package."

The proposal does not set specific sizes for classes that contain both special-education and regular-education students, but the mediators do ask the district and the union to form a committee that would recommend ways to reduce the size of those classes.

The union has said that overcrowded classes that contain both special- and regular-education students deny teachers the best opportunity to teach and students the best opportunity to learn. The board has made class-size reduction a priority, but district officials and board members have said they don't have the room in many school buildings to create additional, smaller classes.

Tension and uncertainty marked the hours leading up to the release of the proposal. Earlier Tuesday, State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon scheduled a Thursday morning contempt-of-court hearing against Rumore and three other union officers.

Teachers have struck twice since Sept. 7, in defiance of both the Taylor Law and a court order. Talks broke down a week ago, and teachers struck again Thursday. The union has refused to promise that teachers will not strike again.

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