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BTF TACTICS MADE ACCORD NEEDLESSLY HARD

Buffalo teachers said yes Friday to a new contract.

It's a fair deal, brokered by a state mediator. But it didn't have to be as hard to do as it was.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore miscalculated the district's resolve. His tactics -- including teacher walkouts on two days -- cost teachers public sympathy, gave the city a black eye and made life tough for schoolkids and their parents.

Teachers will probably pay a price. For violating the Taylor Law, which prohibits them from striking, teachers will likely be docked one day's pay for each of the two days they walked. It averages to about $1,200 each.

By playing his hole card -- a districtwide walkout -- on the second day of school, Rumore made a tactical mistake that angered parents and left him with few other chips to play.

"It's the first time his bluff was ever called," said School Board member Jack Coyle. "I think he did his cause a big disservice."

One-day teacher walkouts in the first and second weeks of school, and late notice of teacher attendance, which closed schools another day, left working parents scrambling. A countywide survey showed only one of three people backed the strike.

There was no pressing reason to walk so soon. Unlike the 1976 teacher strike, there were no layoffs or big program cuts to draw the line over. Buffalo teachers are in the middle of the countywide teacher pay scale and get better benefits than most suburban counterparts.

Some think Rumore believed the threat of a strike would get the historically rubber-spined district to buckle. In the past, Rumore rattled the School Board with strike threats. He also called board members at home and negotiated one-on-one with superintendents, talking them into teacher-friendly packages.

But this is a different superintendent and a different board. Nobody took phone calls at home, and Superintendent Marion Canedo didn't agree to private chats. And the board -- led by hard-shelled Paul Buchanan, a match for Rumore in brains and backbone -- didn't get wobbly when teachers threatened to walk.

"The district didn't blink," said Coyle. "So he (Rumore) created a crisis."

Firing the big gun so soon -- instead of, say, picketing or walkouts at a few schools -- left Rumore with little way to later raise the ante.

Rumore defended the walkout as the teachers' decision: "The teachers said they all wanted to go out on the same day at least once."

Teachers were understandably frustrated. The contract expired a year ago. Working with city kids, many carrying the damage of broken families and barren streets, makes the job far tougher than in the suburbs. As the husband of a Buffalo teacher, I hear first-hand how hard it can be.

Rumore said the district hadn't gotten serious at the table despite a mass teachers rally at City Hall and the teachers' strike blessing to union leaders on Labor Day.

"I don't get into gamesmanship," said Rumore. "There shouldn't have been any surprise (over the strike). They left us no alternative."

Not really.

It's hardly unusual for the contract to expire before serious talks start. This time, there was good reason for the holdup. The district settled the teachers' long-standing back-pay lawsuit four months ago. It didn't know until mid-July how that deal would affect this budget, which meant hard-core contract talks started only six weeks ago.

There was no reason to jump the gun. Rumore pulled the trigger.

The thought here is the district's tough stand surprised and unsettled him. This time, it was a different ballgame.

Rumore noted the change.

"There seemed to be something profoundly negative with them," said Rumore. "Maybe they thought the teachers had gotten the best of them (in the past)."

Buchanan said the teachers didn't have to walk.

"There's no doubt," said Buchanan, "that we could have gotten to the same place without the (strike)."

Going head-to-head with the union was another sign the district is getting its act together. In the past year, the board bought out flawed Superintendent James Harris, sent an embezzling administrator packing, avoided a racial minefield in hiring a new superintendent and settled the back-pay dispute.

Now, for first time in memory, it didn't roll over come contract time. It gave more than it wanted -- teachers got chunky raises and kept a nice health care package. But it got outside social service agency help for needy schoolkids and health care co-pay for future retirees -- a must, given the aging teacher population.

"The (raises) are more than we wanted to pay," said Buchanan. "But it was worth the extra salary to get what we wanted."

The teachers got a fair deal. There were less painful ways to get it.

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