The mood was reflective rather than jubilant Wednesday night as the Buffalo Board of Education unanimously approved the mediators' proposal for a teachers contract, virtually guaranteeing an end to three weeks of strife.
Buffalo teachers are to vote Friday on whether to accept the proposal, which their union executive committee already has endorsed.
The nine-member School Board met for 90 minutes behind closed doors before holding a public roll-call vote on the proposal, which gives teachers pay raises of about 13.5 percent over the next four years but also requires retiring teachers to begin paying part of their health insurance costs.
A contempt-of-court hearing against Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and three other union officers began this morning before State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon. They face the possibility of jail sentence and fines if found guilty of violating Dillon's earlier order by calling a teachers strike last Thursday.
The hearing is expected to continue at least into Friday.
The first witness, John P. Fahey, the district's assistant superintendent for transportation, outlined the events that led district officials to call off school that day.
At Wednesday's board meeting, the exhaustion of the past three weeks, and the sense of resignation several board members expressed in approving a contract they consider too costly could almost be felt going around the table during the vote.
East District member Marlies A. Wesolowski hesitated so long before quietly voicing her support for the contract that heads began turning in her direction as the pause stretched.
"I have some concerns about the financial impact," she said afterward. "And that was the hesitation -- I have some concerns about the financial impact to the district."
Board President Paul G. Buchanan described the approval with mixed feelings.
"It's going to be a financial reach to do this, but we're willing to work hard to make it work," he said. "I don't see it in terms of victory or defeat. We had a difficult set of circumstances. We addressed them professionally as a board."
Superintendent Marion Canedo began the meeting with a recommendation that the board approve the proposal, which had been approved by the Buffalo Teachers Federation executive committee Tuesday night.
"I'm happy that we have accepted the proposal," Canedo said after the School Board vote. "I'm happy with some of the things. It's not the best financial package for the district, but it's better than anything we've been able to do in the past. It does represent a new way of thinking."
The board's approval means that the final step in resolving the dispute is now up to the city's 4,000 teachers who form the BTF membership.
"We feel that it's a good contract," Rumore said Wednesday night. "It takes care of the issues that were important to us. We've made concessions in health care, which I think are reasonable. Although we would like to have seen it less, when you put the whole package together, I think it's something that's fair."
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, who had criticized the union for illegally striking twice in the past three weeks, late Wednesday praised the BTF's concessions on health care costs for retirees and social services by outside agencies as "very significant."
"What's important to keep in mind and focus on is this new contract breaks new ground," he said, urging both sides to "get on with the business of educating our kids and start the healing process."
The contract will give teachers pay raises totaling about 13.5 percent over four of the five years. Teachers who retire as of July 1, 2001, with at least 15 years of experience will pay for a portion of their health insurance for the first time.
That contribution should save the district about $1.5 million by the time it goes fully into effect in 2003, Canedo said. The district had wanted the health insurance contributions to begin even earlier, and disagreement over the starting date was one of the biggest stumbling blocks in negotiations, she said.
In other highlights of the agreement, teachers who take advantage of an early retirement package will see their lump-sum payout come down. Savings from the givebacks, however, should help restore special art, music and physical education teachers to the curriculum in primary grades, as required under the new contract.
And in a move that several board members cited as their one clear victory and one of the reasons they voted yes, the district now will be able to bring outside social service agencies into the schools to provide counseling and other services to students and their families. The union originally had objected to that move, but was satisfied by a clause in the contract assuring that no one from an outside agency will perform work that should be done by a union member.
Canedo called that concession by the union one of the most important parts of the contract.
"We had agencies wanting to come in and help our students and children, and we weren't able to do that," she said.
Looming over the board's vote Wednesday was the fear of what would happen if members rejected the proposal.
Teachers had conducted two daylong strikes since Sept. 7, and Rumore had refused to assure a state judge that teachers would not strike again.
Adam Kaufman, a mediator from the state Public Employment Relations Board, had called the situation a crisis as the two sides prepared to review the proposal he had helped craft.