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Stakes rising as contract talks between schools, BTF stall

More than a year after the expiration of their previous contract, the Buffalo Public Schools and its teachers union have dramatic differences not just on health insurance, but on issues as basic as wages, seniority and early retirement.

In fact, the overwhelming focus on health insurance has prevented substantive discussion of other issues crucial to a contract settlement.

But with the layoffs of 102 teachers and assistant principals still in effect and the Buffalo Teachers Federation planning a series of rallies and picketing efforts, the stakes are rising.

"If we don't change the way we do business, we're going to lose several generations of children," said Superintendent James A. Williams. He concedes that his efforts to exert public and internal pressure on the BTF and other unions have so far failed to produce results, but he said he will keep trying.

BTF President Philip Rumore said the district changes positions from one bargaining session to the next. "There's only one thing I can think -- that they really don't want to reach a settlement," he said.

The district envisions pay raises no sooner than next school year and says wage hikes should be funded only by negotiated savings in other areas.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has been operating without a contract since June 30, 2004, is calling for a retroactive 2 percent pay raise for last school year, a 3 percent raise this year and 5 percent in both of the two following years. The union also is seeking step increases, which -- along with pay raises -- have been frozen by the state control board.

Bargaining papers exchanged late last week show that the district is seeking to:

Reduce sick days to 10 from 12 and personal days to four from five.

Place restrictions on an early retirement incentive.

Require teachers who transfer to new schools by exercising their seniority rights to remain at those schools for at least five years. The BTF said it would agree to a commitment of one year.

The BTF proposes that:

It share in savings from the district's move to a single health insurance carrier.

Instruction in music, art and physical education be mandated in elementary grades.

There be no decrease in the number of teaching positions for the next three years.

Those positions reflect fundamental differences in approach.

After cutting 900 positions since a fiscal free fall that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, district officials say they can no longer count on the state to cover pay raises and soaring health insurance and retirement costs.

"We can't keep doing that," said Gary Crosby, the district's chief fiscal officer. "We're going to reach the point where there's nothing left to cut. We're not interested in a complete meltdown like they had with the county."

Even with a wage freeze, Crosby said, the district faces budget deficits of about $7.1 million next year and $39.8 million in 2007-08.

Patricia Pancoe, the district's director of labor relations, said the school system is determined to change its historic approach, which she characterized this way: "You assumed, you hoped, you prayed that the money would somehow be there."

Rumore said the BTF and other unions have expressed their willingness to agree to the board's move to a single insurance carrier but are getting no cooperation in return.

"They told us at the table that even if we go to a single carrier, there's no money for raises for four years," he said. "I don't get a sense of direction. They come to the table one day and say one thing, then they come in the next day and say something else."

After promising that the health insurance switch would replicate previous coverage, the district last week proposed another health care change that would reduce choice and coverage, Rumore said.

Pancoe described that proposal as separate from the switch to one carrier from three and as a possible way to free up money for raises or other benefits.

Rumore said the BTF is planning to picket the homes of Williams and School Board members, a City Hall rally, letter-writing campaigns and public meetings to highlight its position.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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