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Teachers are ready to talk on insurance But district vows to appeal ruling on multiple plans

A judge Friday ruled that the Buffalo School District must reinstate multiple health insurance plans for teachers, but the head of the teachers union promptly said he is open to talking -- as long as raises are part of the negotiations.

Meanwhile, an angry Superintendent James A. Williams warned that the decision upholding an arbitrator's award could trigger hundreds of layoffs next fall.

The district suffered a stinging blow when State Supreme Court Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer ruled he has no grounds to negate the arbitration award. It requires the district to reinstate four health insurance options and abandon a single-carrier plan that school officials claim is saving $15 million a year.

Williams vowed to "vigorously appeal" the ruling, warning that 300 teachers could be out of work in September if the district loses its fight. Nonmandated programs, including Advanced Placement classes, an alternative school and a new math and science school would have to be eliminated, he added.

"This would be devastating," Williams said. "This is all about the future of this community."

But Philip Rumore, head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said any fallout from the long-festering insurance dispute falls at the school district's doorstep. He said the Board of Education was wrong to implement the single-insurer plan without negotiating with the unions.

"What they did was wrong, and the district is still trying to impose this on teachers," Rumore said as he left court.

He insisted the BTF has been willing to negotiate. When pressed, he acknowledged that a pay increase and the resolution of several other issues would have to be part of the equation. A state control board imposed a wage freeze on all city and school employees in April 2004.

Rumore disputed the school district's claim that not a single employee has been adversely affected by the move to a single carrier. He said some workers have had to wait longer to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket medical expenses, and that they have more limited avenues for appealing unsatisfactory decisions by BlueCross BlueShield, the lone carrier.

The executive director of the control board that oversees school district finances expressed disappointment at the ruling.

"The judge's decision makes me question who is really winning here," said Dorothy A. Johnson. "It's pretty clear that it's not the students."

Johnson cited data showing that Buffalo schools are lagging behind state standards in key testing areas. She echoed the views expressed by other control board officials at a November meeting when they cited the need to find ways to reduce the costs of fringe benefits so more money can be channeled into classrooms.

"The students won't suffer because of anything the BTF has done," Rumore retorted. "The students will suffer because of the school district's blatant bullying on something they needed to negotiate."

Rumore later added the union is also fighting the district's action based on principle.

"History is filled with people who have trampled on people's rights -- bullies who disregarded the law and tried to impose their will upon others," he said.

NeMoyer ruled that except in limited instances, it is not a court's role to substitute the judgment of an arbitrator. He disagreed with the school district's claim that arbitrator Dana E. Eischen performed no analysis of some issues that deemed integral to their case.

The arbitrator's award calls on the school district to reinstate multiple health plans by Jan. 1. But Patricia A. Pancoe, the district's executive director of labor relations, said the Board of Education will be entitled to an automatic stay once it files papers seeking an appeal.

The arbitrator's award also would require the district to rehire -- with back pay and interest -- about two dozen teachers who were laid off last year in the contentious insurance tug-of-war between school officials and the union. Most teachers who were laid off have already been reinstated.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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