Buffalo School Superintendent Marion Canedo is asking the district's nine unions to voluntarily accept a 5 percent across-the-board pay cut, a move that would save the jobs of more than half the 482 employees scheduled to be laid off.
"If we get everybody on board, we could cut this tragedy in half," Canedo said of the plan, which is designed to save $10 million. "If we could work together as one team, then people don't have to get laid off. We're certainly going to make the effort."
The initial response of the Buffalo Teachers Federation was non-committal.
"We'll cross that bridge if and when she does (make a formal request)," said BTF President Philip Rumore. "I'll wait until I see it in writing before I react to it."
Anthony Palano, president of the union that represents principals, assistant principals and other district administrators, reacted more favorably.
"The union is certainly willing to listen," he said. "The times we're in are very serious, and there could be a tremendous amount of good will that comes out of this."
Canedo said she raised the proposal verbally in meetings with union leaders and will soon put it in writing. She said she and five top-level, non-union administrators have already agreed to forfeit 5 percent of their own pay if the unions go along.
"I'm planning to do it along with the rest of the team," Canedo said. "I'm willing to be first, and so are all my top aides."
Canedo also raised the possibility of some employees voluntarily agreeing to four-day workweeks or taking leaves of absence.
The BTF is by far the district's largest union, and its participation is crucial in making the 5 percent plan work. Rumore, while declining to discuss a possible union response, said the request should come from the district's elected Board of Education, not from Canedo.
Palano, principal of the Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, said he personally would be willing to go along with the plan.
"As the president of the union, I would be willing to take a pay cut to restore administrative positions," he said. "We all have an opportunity to make a contribution here."
But Palano said the response of the Buffalo Council of Supervisors and Administrators will reflect the consensus of its membership. "I would never tell anyone that they should take a pay cut," he said.
Palano said he views Canedo's request as legitimate and sincere, and not as an attempt to assign blame or punish employees.
"There is no posturing here," he said. "It's a matter of her saying: 'We're in a crisis, and I don't have a solution. This is what I have to do.' "
Participation by all employees would cut $10 million from the district's $400 million annual budget, said James M. Kane, executive assistant to Canedo. Because the reductions would begin in midyear, he said, a 5 percent give-back would amount to just 2.5 percent of yearly salaries.
Canedo has told the unions that if 5 percent is deemed to be too much, perhaps they could agree to a lesser amount.
Faced with a $28 million budget deficit, the Board of Education voted Wednesday to slash 557 positions in order to save $17.4 million. About 75 of the positions are currently vacant, meaning that 482 employees would actually be laid off.
Kane said the 5 percent plan would save more than half those positions. He said district officials are exploring the possibility that the givebacks could be tax-deductible, which would soften the blow for individual employees.
And because retirement benefits are based on an employee's highest three-year salaries, Kane said, the district is also seeking ways to keep official salaries at their current levels for bookkeeping purposes.
Canedo said she has no authority to order the givebacks, and is appealing to the unions on the basis of common good.
"It can't be a demand, since I legally signed contracts with all these people," she said. "But in the spirit of working for the good of the schools, in the spirit of children having reasonably sized classes, and in the spirit of people not being laid off shortly before Christmas, I hope people can come together on this."
Canedo said union leaders offered little firm reaction when she outlined the proposal to them at two meetings prior to Wednesday's board vote.
"They didn't say it could never happen, but they didn't know what will happen when they take it out to their memberships," she said.
Following a two-day strike, the BTF last year agreed to a five-year contract that included pay raises of about 13.5 percent. That contract expires in July 2004. Last year, the median -- or midpoint -- salary of Buffalo teachers was in the mid-$50,000 range.
The union representing principals and assistant principals in June approved a three-year contract that provided pay increases of 21 percent in return for a requirement that they work year-round. Palano said then that the average yearly salary for principals would increase to more than $104,000 in 2004.
Canedo in June signed a three-year personal contract at a salary of $150,000 a year.
Donald A. Van Every, chairman of the Board of Education's finance committee, said he supports Canedo's request to the unions as long as it is presented in a cooperative way and does not invite strife with the district's unions.
"I look at it as more of a discussion along these lines: 'We're in tough straits. Is there anything you can do?' " he said.
Board President Paul G. Buchanan framed the proposal this way: "Please take a look at it. Would you be willing to do it? If not, what might you be willing to do?"