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UNION, LEADERS PLEAD GUILTY

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, today pleaded guilty to contempt of court for leading a teachers strike Sept. 14.

Rumore faces up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,000 when sentenced next Friday by State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon.

Rumore told Dillon he "advocated and recommended" the strike because he was convinced Buffalo teachers could not get a fair contract any other way.

"I am fully aware that this was a violation of the court's order," he said. "I am prepared to take the consequences of those actions, as a teacher and as my mother taught me."

Two other union officers -- Edith LeWin and Barbara Bielecki -- also pleaded guilty and face the same possible penalties as Rumore next Friday.

The union, as a corporation, also entered a guilty plea and could be fined any amount Dillon deems reasonable when it is sentenced Nov. 13.

The guilty pleas brought a sudden end to a contempt hearing that lasted all day Thursday and had been scheduled to resume this morning.

Instead, the pleas were entered after several hours of negotiations between attorneys and Dillon.

The three officers do not have a right to appeal Dillon's sentence. Only the amount of the fine against the union can be appealed.

After the court session, Rumore said the strike was "absolutely worth it -- it was something that had to be done."

At the same time, he said, union leaders were aware that they were violating the state's Taylor Law and Dillon's no-strike order.

"As teachers, we should set an example," he said. "One of the examples you set is to take responsibility for your actions."

LeWin voiced similar sentiments about the strike, saying: "I shared his (Rumore's) frustration and his belief that we had no choice."

Rumore also said the first day of the hearing convinced him that continuing continue legal arguments over whether the actions on Sept. 14 actually constituted a strike.

"It's ridiculous for this to keep going on," he said. "Everyone knows what happened."

Dillon said any fine against the union would be based, among other factors, on the extent of its willful defiance of the court order, the strike's impact on public health and safety and the union's ability to pay.

The judge did not say what criteria he will consider in determing sentences for the individual union leaders but stressed that no sentencing deal has been reached.

He said the union, its officers and city attorneys may file written arguments on sentences.

In Thursday's court session, attorneys representing the city and the union sparred over the strike question.

"Was there a strike?" said K. Michael Sawicki, an attorney for the union. "Was there a violation of the (court) order? I think that's the issue."

The legal debate before Dillon had an eerie, almost unreal feeling:

John P. Fahey, the school system's assistant superintendent for transportation, testified about emergency bus procedures he no longer has to employ.

David P. Rutecki, a vice president for M&T Bank, outlined a loan request for striking teachers that never went into effect.

Yvonne Hargrave, Buffalo's associate superintendent for instruction, leafed through daily attendance sheets to show that, indeed, 3,945 teachers missed work without excuse Sept. 14.

If the new contract -- on which the union's 4,000 members were to vote late this afternoon -- was expected to heal all wounds, it was not evident in court.

When city attorneys introduced enlarged versions of union documents, Robert W. Klingensmith Jr., another union attorney, complained that they were positioned directly in front of reporters.

"It's in evidence," Dillon replied. "The public can see it. The media's part of the public."

The union appeared trying to show that school system negotiators provoked a job actions by bargaining in bad faith and by contending that any danger to children on days schools were closed resulted from the system's ineptitude, not striking teachers.

"The contempt, if there was any, did not arise in a vacuum," Klingensmith said.

Several times, Dillon disallowed questions and told attorneys to stay on track. "There has to be some limit here somewhere, Mr. Klingensmith," he said at one point.

David Walker, a fourth union officer initially named in the contempt papers, is out of the country and has not been formally charged.

A separate hearing would be required to seek a contempt conviction against him, but this seemed unlikely.

Wednesday night, the Buffalo Board of Education unanimously approved a state mediator's proposal to settle the contract dispute.

The union's executive committee had recommended approval late Tuesday.

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