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School Board praises savings in labor pact

A new contract with the Buffalo Public Schools' operating engineers was heralded as "revolutionary" on Friday because it trades pay hikes for longer school days, acceptance of single-carrier health insurance and $850,000 a year in savings for the school district.

The agreement, approved 8-0 by the Board of Education, also raised hopes that the district will be able to quell labor discord by working out agreements with its other eight unions, all of which are working under the terms of expired contracts.

"What we're doing today is revolutionary," said Superintendent James A. Williams. "If you come to the table and talk, we can get an agreement. It's all about: I trust them and they trust me."

In addition to achieving desperately needed cost savings, Williams said, the 90-minute extension of the engineers' work day will keep schools open as late as 6 p.m. for academic and extracurricular activities, a move long viewed as crucial to lifting dismal pupil performance.

In return, the operating engineers get 2 percent pay hikes each of the next three years and contractual assurances that the district's often controversial system for cleaning and maintaining schools remains in effect through 2010. There will be no back pay to 2001, when the last contract expired, but the engineers will receive an additional $5,000 hike in their base pay next month.

Donald Van Every, the board's North District representative, praised the cooperative effort of the operating engineers, and urged other district employees to send this message to their union leaders: "Get back to the table and be serious. It is possible to get an agreement."

But Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said there is "no way" the BTF would accept provisions similar to those contained in the contract approved Wednesday with Local 409, International Union of Operating Engineers.

Rumore singled out an agreement by the engineers to increase their work day by 17 percent in return for 2 percent pay hikes, and a provision that new hires pay up to $1,000 a year in health care premiums.

"There is no way the BTF will ever, as long as I'm president, punish new employees who make the least amount of money," Rumore said. "It's not a model for the BTF. It's not a model that would be acceptable to our members."

The contract with the engineers requires approval from the state control board, which will consider it at its next meeting Jan. 31. Dorothy A. Johnson, the control board's executive director, issued this written statement Wednesday: "It's encouraging that union and management have been working to settle a contract to benefit Buffalo's children as well as both parties to the agreement."

The contract seeks to work around the control board's 3-year-old wage freeze by offsetting the cost of the raises with simultaneous savings that revolve largely around single-carrier health insurance.

The 66-member engineers union approved the agreement Tuesday by a 5-to-1 ratio, said Jeff Lathrop, president of Local 409.

The engineers, who clean and maintain Buffalo's 60 school buildings, earn a base salary of $40,065, but in some cases earn $70,000 with overtime.

In addition, they are allocated additional money by the Board of Education to look after their individual schools and -- acting as independent contractors -- pocket funds they don't spend on subcontractors and other expenses.

The engineers also agreed to extend their work day by 90 minutes, creating shifts of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., depending on school hours.

The engineers subcontract much of the actual maintenance work to members of Local 17S of the Operating Engineers. The contract approved Wednesday provides for comparable percentage pay hikes to those workers, who are not directly hired by the school district.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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