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UNION APPROVES 5-YEAR CONTRACT

Buffalo's 4,000 public school teachers Friday overwhelmingly ratified a five-year contract, ending a contentious labor dispute with assurances the effects won't linger in the classrooms even as the fight continues in the courtroom.

The ratification at Kleinhans Music Hall came at the end of a day that also saw Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore and two other union officials plead guilty to contempt charges and had district leaders considering legal options to recoup financial losses from the strike.

But outside Kleinhans, the talk from teachers was about moving on.

"We're all professionals, and we can put this behind us," said Sue Baker Kroczynski, 41, a special education teacher at Campus West on Elmwood Avenue. "We want to be back to work. We're in the business of teaching, and classrooms are where we're supposed to be."

Math teacher Jeff Burke's first year as a teacher got off to a bumpy start at Buffalo Traditional School because of the on-again, off-again strike.

With the contract's ratification, Burke said he'll be able to concentrate on teaching algebra and trigonometry to his high school students.

"When you're in the classroom, you're so overwhelmed by what's in front of you, all you can do is focus on work," he said.

The city school district's teachers endorsed the proposal, crafted by state mediators, in a voice vote at the end of an hour-long meeting.

Only a few dozen teachers among those at the packed music hall objected, said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

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

Teachers will get a 2 percent raise retroactive to July 1 and another 1.5 percent raise 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.

While the teachers are glad to put the labor dispute behind them, legal and administrative proceedings arising from the union's strike could drag on for months, perhaps years, despite Friday's ratification and also the guilty plea to criminal contempt of court by Rumore and two other union officers.

Other issues, -- potentially divisive, but none of them criminal in nature -- still need to be resolved, school district and union officials said.

They are:

The state Taylor Law's two-for-one penalties, in which teachers lose a day's pay and are fined another for each day on strike.

A district motion, already filed with the state's Public Public Employment Relations Board, that could lead to the suspension of the BTF's automatic dues check-off provision.

A civil lawsuit being considered by the city that would seek monetary damages from the BTF for extra costs incurred when teachers were on strike two days earlier this month. That could include the the cost of hiring substitute teachers and the possible loss of state aid.

Rumore, along with fellow BTF officers Edith LeWin and Barbara Bielecki, pleaded guilty Friday to contempt of court for leading a teachers strike on Sept. 14 in violation of the state's Taylor Law and a no-strike court order. They face up to 30 days in jail and possible fines of $1,000 each when sentenced next Friday by Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon.

Shortly after the guilty pleas, Donald Van Every, an at-large Board of Education member, publicly urged Dillon not to impose jail terms.

"I'm calling on Justice Dillon not to sentence them to anything other than community service," Van Every said. "I think 10 years of labor strife is enough. I personally don't think serving time will help."

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

"Sometimes you have to take a stand against a law that you believe is unjust," Rumore said after the plea. "But then you also have to be prepared to stand up and face the music. I am prepared to take the consequences of those actions, as a teacher and as my mother taught me."

The union, as a corporation, also entered a guilty plea and could be fined any amount Dillon deems reasonable at a Nov. 13 sentencing.

The three officers do not have a right to appeal Dillon's sentence, and the judge stressed on Friday that no sentencing deal has been made. The amount of the fine against the union, however, can be appealed.

Of the three remaining issues, the two-for-one penalties seem the most clear-cut.

Buffalo Schools Superintendent Marion Canedo either has invoked that provision for two strike days or soon will, a district spokesman said Friday. The money would be deducted from the paychecks of teachers.

The penalties, however, will not be sought for a day when teachers reported for work, but on which school was canceled by the district because of uncertainty over whether there would be a strike.

The lost pay and penalties for two days total about $4 million, and will remain with the school district. However, sources said it will be needed to help finance the contract approved Friday evening, and therefore is, in effect, already spent.

While the two-for-one penalties will hit individual teachers in the pocketbook, it remains relatively non-controversial.

"It's statutory," Rumore said. "She (Canedo) has to invoke it."

In contrast, the district's efforts to pursue the suspension of the BTF's dues check-off will be contested by the BTF in a PERB proceeding. Rumore said the BTF will claim the strike resulted from "extreme provocation" on the part of the district.

What's more, city officials are considering a separate civil lawsuit seeking to recover extra costs run up by the school district on strike days, said Michael B. Risman, Buffalo corporation counsel.

"We have not made a final decision on that," he said. "We're not under a time constraint, and we're looking at all our options."

Rumore said such a suit could further inflame tensions within the district.

"I certainly imagine it would not help to put this episode behind us," he said.

Also pending are improper practices charges that both the district and the BTF said they filed against each other with PERB during contract negotiations. The outcome of those charges, while not considered crucial, could be used by the respective sides to buttress their cases in the larger remaining disputes.

In court on Friday, Dillon said any fine he imposes against the union would be based, among other factors, on the extent of its willful defiance of his no-strike 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 determining sentences for the individual union leaders.

After the ratification vote, dozens of teachers patted Rumore on the back, shook his hand or hugged him as they congratulated him for getting the best deal they said he could.

The teachers applauded him several times as he explained the contract inside the music hall, including once when he told them their health care contributions during retirement would be fixed and not include cost-of-living increases.

Perhaps the biggest applause came when Rumore described the phase-in of art, music and physical education courses for first- through third-graders, beginning with the 2001-2002 school year.

While the agreement includes a sunset provision, Rumore said the school board "will be hard-pressed" to remove them once the public sees the benefits.

Lori "Toni" Bell, a Spanish and French teacher at School No. 4, Harbor Heights Elementary School on South Park Avenue, said inclusion of the art, music and gym classes was her biggest concern.

"To me, salary isn't as important," Bell said. "To me, it's about the kids."

The children need the time during gym class to get out of their seats and run around in an organized physical activity, said Bell, 25.

Burke, the first-year math teacher at Buffalo Traditional, said he's eager to get on with teaching.

The contract's first raise will bump his salary up from about $28,775 to $29,300, he said.

"I grew up in the city, and I wanted to teach in the city and give back," Burke said. "It's a calling for me. Walking the picket line, I had some second thoughts. But I'm ready to put it behind me, move on and get on with the business of teaching."

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