A quality education for Buffalo's children. That is our city's most important goal, and one in which the school district's scarce resources must be targeted. Meeting that goal will be tough during the fiscal crisis -- but it can be met with everyone's help. Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, seemed to have forgotten about that all-important goal, however, when he focused exclusively on the effect of the wage freeze on union members in his Buffalo News article in this space.
As a former teacher myself, I understand perfectly the need to get resources into the classroom where they can bring the greatest benefit for our children. The inability of the school district to provide nurses is symptomatic of the district's struggle to allocate its limited resources for our children. It is disingenuous for Rumore to play up the BTF's role in trying to restore nurses, when his union is making it more difficult for the district to provide the service itself.
The school district is advocating the move to a single health insurance provider, which could save $12 million in the first year, and up to $15 million in the next, with no change in benefits to teachers. These savings could restore nurses, put more teachers in the classroom and prevent further layoffs. The BTF and other unions are blocking this effort.
While the wage freeze provides some budget relief from salary increases, the school district still is fighting massive budget gaps, driven by the rapidly increasing cost of pension and health care benefits to district employees.
Cuts in staffing have brought salary costs down by $10 million, but total benefits for employees are up by $15 million over last year. That amounts to a net increase of $5 million -- a higher cost for fewer employees to care for our children.
Yet Rumore, instead of putting the interests of the children first, won't come to the table until he gets a new contract.
As Rev. Richard Stenhouse, a control board member, pointed out, that may be his legal right, but it is not morally right.
We all know of the many teachers whose dedication and devotion to our children lead them to make sacrifices, including reaching into their own pockets to buy supplies for their classrooms. Doesn't this highlight the nature of the district's financial difficulty? Given a choice, I expect most teachers would rather be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The status quo is failing all of us. All sectors of the community need to come together. Teachers who see things differently than Rumore should urge him to agree to a single health care provider, providing millions of dollars in savings to the schools -- a simple and dramatic way to show he acts in the best interests of our children.
We urge an immediate summit of the BTF, the school administration and the health insurance providers to resolve any issues. The children need these resources in the classroom now.
Dorothy Johnson is executive director of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority.