The cosmetic surgery rider included in some of the Buffalo Public School District's contracts is the never-ending nightmare. A School Board member and the head of the Buffalo teachers union are fighting about it. The FBI wants information about it. Teachers may be laid off because of it. It needs to go.
The report that the Buffalo Public Schools spent as much as $9 million in taxpayers' money last year to pay for teachers and other staff members to have chemical peels, laser hair removal and other skin treatments -- even as it was forced to reduce its staff to the tune of 356 positions -- is another example of how the cost of maintaining a public sector worker in New York has become self-destructive for the workers and ruinously expensive for the taxpayers.
Now the local FBI office has also become interested, with an agent last month contacting School Board Member Chris Jacobs, who raised questions about the millions spent on the benefit last year. Jacobs said he thinks the FBI is concerned about fraud, especially given the significant increase in revenues generated by certain doctors and the increase in the unit cost.
Meanwhile, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore tries to deflect blame for the outrageous cost by pointing out, accurately, that his members have long understood that the district-funded insurance rider is not sustainable and will have to go. But like any hardball negotiator, he isn't willing to give it up unless it is done as part of a whole new contract for his members.
Given that the last negotiated contract ran out in 2004, hammering out a new one would certainly be a good idea. And those negotiations are, indeed, the correct place to work out the long-term size and shape of the union's health insurance benefits.
But the union's refusal to surrender this particularly odious perk as a gesture of good faith -- not to mention self-defense -- has done nothing good for anyone.
If the BTF had surrendered its beauty benefit before 2009, it might have spared the jobs of as many as 180 of its own members. But apparently it was more important to the union leaders to retain this indefensible luxury for a few rather than protect the basic subsistence of many of its junior members.
The fact that the 2009 cost of the cosmetic surgery is nine times what it was as recently as 2004, with the number of procedures performed having tripled in that same period, does suggest, as Rumore says, that teachers understand that they are in a use-it-or-lose-it situation.
But it also creates a circumstance, deliberate or not, where the union can argue that giving up the benefit now amounts to a loss of $9 million a year for union members. That could lead teachers to demand a compensating increase in some other benefit, and allow them to claim that some new prize that only cost taxpayers, say, $5 million, was a break for the district and a sacrifice for the teachers.
The district should not buy that argument. And neither should the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, whose auditors recently teased this shocking information out of the district's budget.
The most maddening thing about the union's insistence on clinging to the benefit is that, even in its most expensive year, it was used only by some 500 individuals.
The benefit to those people was, by definition, only skin deep. But the loss to union members who were laid off, or who weren't hired in the first place, as well as to the students who have had to make do with fewer teachers and aides, larger classrooms and curtailed programs, cuts deep.