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TIME TO CONCENTRATE ON THE KIDS

While you can't undo 25 years of bad labor decisions in one contract, the Buffalo Board of Education did a service for this city by holding out for an agreement with its teachers that gives taxpayers a bigger bang for their buck while freeing up additional dollars for the classroom.

And the leadership of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, despite its irresponsible action in striking the district at the last minute, showed some courage in accepting givebacks -- particularly in health-insurance payments -- that will be painful for its members to accept.

Neither side is entirely happy with the settlement hammered out by the Public Employment Relations Board, but that's the definition of a good settlement. Now it's time to move on.

This is a contract that both sides agree will benefit students. The ability to bring outside social service agencies into the schools to provide counseling and other services to students is a huge victory for the district -- and the children. Inner-city students often have personal and family problems that make learning difficult. By bringing in outside counselors, the district may be able to address the root problems that prevent too many kids from getting the education they deserve.

Some of the other points to celebrate include restoration of art, music and physical education to the curriculum, and inclusion of special education students into mainstream classrooms.

The financial settlement also seems fair to both sides. The contract will give the district's 4,000 teachers -- most of whom earn between $50,000 and the low $60,000 range -- pay raises every six months starting last July and continuing until January 2004. The raises will be 2 percent, 1.5 percent, 2 percent, 1.5 percent, 2 percent, 1 percent, 2 percent and 1.5 percent. There will be no raise for the first year of the five-year contract. While these raises don't put them at the level of most experienced suburban teachers, the salary is more than competitive with other city districts like Rochester and Syracuse.

And if it was a bit more than the district wanted to pay, board members should keep in mind that givebacks seldom come cheaply. If that was the price for getting retired teachers to help foot the bill for their health-insurance, it was worth it, although the School Board would have liked to see some concessions sooner rather than later.

The benefits to the district won't really take effect until the last two years of the contract. But failure to bring health costs under control would have meant ever-spiraling amounts of money going to retirees instead of students.

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, saving the district about $1.5 million by the time it goes fully into effect in 2003. A family will pay $660, $790 and $950 in each of those three years from 2001 to 2003. That's a significant giveback by the union.

Board President Paul G. Buchanan said his mixed feelings about the contract are based on the School Board's feeling that the strike was unnecessary. "We thought the timing was bad," he said.

He's absolutely correct. This is a strike that didn't need to be. That said, though, both sides acted responsibly in bringing it to an end. The board accepted the PERB deal even though it didn't like its "take it or leave it" nature or the up-front expense, and the union accepted the need to make retirees pay for part of their health insurance and accept less money for early retirement.

Too often over the past 25 years, the city has bargained away its management prerogatives. This contract hopefully will mark the beginning of the end of that practice. It's a good start.

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