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Budget OK'd amid warning on step increases in payroll

The Buffalo Board of Education on Wednesday evening unanimously approved a $742.3 million budget that includes modest increases in staffing and classroom initiatives. But district officials warned that fiscal meltdown lies ahead if it is forced to pay four step increases to teachers and other employees, rather than one.

The budget, which includes payment for just one step increase, would lengthen the school day by an hour at 16 low-performing schools, add six security officers and make improvements to the district's antiquated business systems.

But if the district is forced to pay four step increases, it faces $89 million in accumulated deficits by 2010-11 and could be forced to lay off 250 or more staff members in 2008-09 and another 150 over the following two years, said Gary M. Crosby, chief operations and financial officer.

Crosby and board members urged the Buffalo Teachers Federation to drop a planned lawsuit seeking four step increases and instead to negotiate a contract that would reduce health care premiums and other costs in return for percentage salary increases.

"Our best course is negotiation," said Donald A. Van Every, the North District board representative. "It's the only option. Litigation will not get our employees salary increases."

BTF President Philip Rumore, reached by phone after the meeting, said that the union's push for four step increases is "nonnegotiable" and that a State Supreme Court lawsuit will be filed after the budget takes effect next month.

"We certainly have no intention of negotiating for step increases," Rumore said. "As far as we're concerned, they're already in the budget."

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's legal staff said last week that Buffalo city and school district employees who lost out on raises during the recently lifted 38-month-old wage freeze are eligible to move up just one step on the salary ladder.

Mayor Byron W. Brown is seeking state legislation to allow the city to give workers all four step increases they missed since the state control board imposed the wage freeze in April 2004. But school district officials say they cannot afford to do that and expressed confidence that their one-step plan will be upheld in the courts.

Teachers have lost out on $29 million in step increases, Rumore said, and the district can make that up now or under court order. "Our attorneys feel confident we will prevail," Rumore said. "We'll find out."

Crosby urged the BTF to examine the district's financial books, saying the union will find that its financial projections are honest and on target.

Rumore said he will send the budget material to New York State United Teachers officials in Albany for analysis but repeated his contention that the district is underestimating future increases in state aid.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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