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Stars they are, but not in clusters Buffalo Public Schools have bright, young teachers, but policies undermine the hiring of more of them

Bright, talented and enthusiastic, Jaime Ganti and Erica Case are the kind of young teachers you want for your own children.

"They're excellent teachers and quick learners," said Will Keresztes, principal at Buffalo's Highgate Heights Elementary School, where Ganti and Case teach. "Both of these teachers are stars, or emerging stars."

But Buffalo isn't getting enough of the stars.

Too often, talented young teachers go elsewhere because of the constant threat of layoffs and because of contractual provisions that force the district to hire teachers long after other cities and local suburban districts have filled their vacancies, said School Superintendent James A. Williams.

Inability to agree on a new teachers contract since 2004 adds to those difficulties, he said.

"Are we getting the cream of the crop?" Williams said. "No. We hire late, so we get what's left."

Despite those difficulties, Buffalo continues to fill vacancies with teachers certified in their subject areas. However, Williams' concern is not merely filling the vacancies but finding outstanding teachers -- "the best and the brightest" -- who can help lift dismal student test scores and graduation rates.

In addition, only about 14 percent of the teachers in Buffalo are from minority groups, while minority student enrollment is about 75 percent.

"A reflection of your student population is, to a certain extent, very important," Williams said.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore says that Buffalo is continuing to hire many excellent teachers but agrees that the pool of available candidates is shrinking.

At the same time, he disagrees entirely with Williams' explanation, contending that the superintendent is drastically overstating the impact of contract provisions in an effort to create "a wedge in negotiations."

The real culprits, Rumore said, are the wage freeze that prevents teachers from getting raises, the residency provision that requires some new teachers to live in Buffalo, the challenges of teaching in a big city and the stress caused by City Hall's overmanagement of teachers.

"Who's going to want to go someplace where your salary is frozen and you don't know for how long?" Rumore said. "You put all those things together, and those are the issues."

To be sure, many good young teachers are finding professional homes in Buffalo schools.

Ganti, a 2003 graduate of Buffalo State College, is happy to be in her second year as a sixth-grade teacher at Highgate Heights.

"I love the faculty," she said. "I love the students. I feel very comfortable. I know teachers who don't have jobs who would give anything to have jobs in Buffalo."

Case, a recent graduate of Niagara University, said that many of her friends have moved to Florida, North Carolina or Rochester to find teaching jobs and that she is very fortunate to have been hired this year as a second-grade teacher at Highgate Heights, which is just a few blocks from her home. Other friends, Case said, have been unsuccessfully seeking teaching jobs in the Buffalo area for several years.

"There are so many quality teachers out there that getting a job is a top priority," she said.

Williams said that there are lots of young teachers eager to work in Buffalo but that many are discouraged because of hiring delays and fiscal uncertainties.

"They are knocking our doors down to work in our system," he said. "But I know four people I recruited personally who went to New York City because they couldn't wait any longer."

Williams said that Buffalo recruits off lists of education school graduates provided by Buffalo State but that many of them take jobs elsewhere before Buffalo is able to make them firm offers.

Of particular concern to Williams is a provision in the BTF contract that encourages -- but does not mandate -- retiring teachers to file their retirement papers by May 31, three months before the start of the next school year.

In contrast, suburban districts often require retirement notification by December or January, giving them as much as eight months to fill vacancies.

In Buffalo, Williams said, it is not unusual for teachers to retire weeks or days before the start of the school year, or even on the first day of school.

"We have to wait until the last minute to hire [replacements]," he said. "By that time, most of your good teachers have been hired."

More than 1,000 staff members -- most of them teachers -- were laid off in the last five years, and Williams said his efforts to stabilize district finances are also crucial to attracting the best teachers.

"When you don't know whether you're going to have a job from one year to the next, that's a problem," he said.

Rumore said teachers generally give the district lots of lead time before retiring, and he criticized Williams' emphasis on the notification clause.

He said teachers are often reluctant to come to Buffalo -- or to stay -- because of large class sizes, lack of resources and staff to help students with learning, behavioral or emotional difficulties and what he describes as overregimentation of teachers.

"They're taking all the joy out of teaching," Rumore said.

He said the district's residency policy also discourages teaching candidates.

"It's not that they don't want to live in the City of Buffalo," he said. "They just don't want to be told where to live."

The policy allows district officials to waive the residency policy in "high-need" instructional areas. There are now 12 of those areas, including English, math, reading, science, and special education. Of 160 teachers hired for this school year, 124 -- or 78 percent -- were in one of those shortage areas and therefore eligible for residency waivers.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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