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Seniority doesn't trump teacher ability

Buffalo Public Schools officials have won a major breakthrough in their efforts to base teacher transfers on qualifications and not just seniority, the Board of Education was told Wednesday evening.

An arbitrator ruled late last week that the district did not violate its contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation when it filled an instrumental music position at City Honors School with an applicant who had better qualifications than another candidate but less seniority.

"This is a major break in the line of prior decisions we've had," said Patricia Pancoe, the district's director of labor relations. "At least we have some ammunition on our side now."

Superintendent James A. Williams frequently targets teacher assignments based strictly on seniority as a major impediment to his three-year plan to boost student achievement.

"It might seem minor, but it changes the culture," he said of the arbitration decision. "Past practice means everything."

BTF President Philip Rumore acknowledged that the decision by Samuel Cugalj, an arbitrator from Orchard Park, sets new ground rules, at least in this case.

"It's a change," he said. "That's for sure." But Rumore said the battle over seniority is far from over. "It's a bad decision as far as we're concerned. If the situation arises again, we'll grieve it again. This is a limited case."

In a 10-page decision, Cugalj upheld City Honors' decision to choose the teacher with less seniority in 2004 following interviews by a team of teachers, parents and administrators. The more senior teacher filed the grievance, claiming, among other things, that one of the schools he taught at previously was closed, and that his involuntary transfer was covered by seniority provisions.

"The employer has a broad community interest in developing a top-notch educational facility such as City Honors, and the teaching faculty is a most integral part of the success of that facility," Cugalj said.

"That requires the type of exercise the interviewing team went through," he added. "That having been said though, the employer does not have a blanket contractual right to ignore seniority in filling involuntary transfers, but when it does, it must communicate bona fide reasons for doing so."

Both Pancoe and Rumore said teachers sometimes withdraw transfer requests when it becomes clear that a principal does not consider them right for the job. "Why would you go some place you're not wanted?" Rumore said.

But while Pancoe said teachers file grievances over transfers about twice a year, Rumore said he can remember only three such in 20 years.

Board of Education members Donald Van Every, Christopher Jacobs and Jack Coyle welcomed the decision and urged district administrators to continue pursuing the issue.

"Seniority just means you've been here a long time," Coyle said. "It does not mean you're a good teacher. We should have more flexibility."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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