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Board OKs plan to end strife with unions

Seeking to end years of labor unrest, Buffalo Public Schools officials Wednesday night spelled out a plan to set aside $32.8 million to provide pay raises for teachers and other employees, settle eight union contracts and still maintain a balanced budget without layoffs or program cuts.

Gary M. Crosby, chief operations and financial officer, said he is "optimistic" that labor peace can be achieved and called for the cooperation of district unions. "We have to take advantage of this opportunity now and move forward in a collaborative way," he said.

Crosby said the recently approved state budget projects aid to Buffalo schools for the next four years. That, he said, gives district officials new opportunities for long-range planning and gives them confidence that their plan can hold up through the life of multiyear contracts.

After being briefed on the plan in closed-door executive session, the Board of Education approved it in a 9-0 vote and expressed a rare sense of optimism that a breakthrough may be possible.

"I'm hoping we can send a clear message to all the unions," said West District board member Ralph Hernandez. "We're ready to move to the center. We want to meet them there."

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, head of the district's largest union, could not be reached to comment.

But the plan is rife with potential problems and complications. For example:

* The bulk of the pay raise fund -- or $21 million -- would result from the unions agreeing to switch to single-carrier health insurance. Unions have resisted the district's earlier decision to unilaterally switch to a single carrier, and the board is under court order to restore the choice of three carriers to BTF members.

* The pay raises are also dependent on other, unspecified union concessions, as well as cost-saving moves by the district.

* The district plan assumes the state can be persuaded to forgive $11.8 million remaining on a loan used to pay off a previous back-pay ruling in favor of the teachers.

* Contract settlements would require the approval of the state control board, which imposed a wage freeze on city and school district workers three years ago.

Crosby said those obstacles would be much easier to overcome if the district and its unions work out tentative agreements and present a united front.

"It's a show of good faith that we really want the wage freeze lifted," he said of the pay raise plan.

Contracts for eight district unions expired nearly three years ago.

"We are attempting to do something that will put everyone on the same page," said board President Florence D. Johnson.


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