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BTF should forgo suit and put kids first

Teachers complain that moving half the staff at three Buffalo schools will be disruptive.

They're right. In fact, that's the whole idea: to "disrupt" failure.

But instead of acknowledging that reality, the Buffalo Teachers Federation is threatening legal action to protect teachers while students keep getting shortchanged.

Amid this week's optimism as Say Yes to Education and the federal government promised millions to turn around Buffalo and its schools, the union threatens to be the Grinch that stole kids' futures.

Part of the district's turnaround plan to capture $42 million in federal aid for its worst schools calls for changing at least half the staff at Futures Academy, Drew Science Magnet and Bilingual Center School 33.

It's an admittedly desperate measure, but that's exactly what's needed. Federal officials describe it as "a kick start in order to change the culture" at failing schools.

Predictably, BTF President Phil Rumore calls it something else.

"Common sense says just taking half the faculty and moving them to other schools is disruptive," he said, adding that affected teachers oppose the plan. "Just moving people around doesn't solve the problem."

But we already know that leaving them there didn't solve the problem, either.

Sometimes change, in and of itself, can be a catalyst, shaking people out of their lethargy, getting people out of their comfort zones and forcing them to start consciously applying themselves again instead of operating on autopilot.

In a district with a graduation rate around 50 percent and nearly three-quarters of its schools on the state's watch list, "disruption" is long overdue.

Teachers and principals need to be made to feel as on edge and under pressure as one of their low-performing students taking the SATs; they need to feel as anxious as one of their unprepared graduates walking into a job interview.

It's time to get teachers out of their comfort zone, a zone most city students never experienced to begin with.

Nobody is pretending that this will be pleasant.

In Louisville, Ky., union President Brent McKim says teachers recommended the restaffing model primarily because there was so much uncertainty about what an alternative reform plan might entail. But even with some degree of buy-in to avoid what they feared might be a worse option, it was stressful.

"It's traumatic for teachers who feel like they dedicated their lives to a building" after working there for 20 years and "volunteering for everything" to have to reapply and hope they get to stay, McKim said. The process was so "tough emotionally," he said, that the district made counseling available for the traumatized instructors.

But as much as I feel their pain, my empathy goes more to students trapped in failing schools. Say Yes to Education's college guarantee means nothing if those students can't meet the academic requirements for admission.

Rumore says there's no evidence that moving teachers en masse works; but that's only because it hasn't been tried. It's worth a try now, along with the other turnaround models, to see which works. Other things -- parental involvement, enlightened leadership, etc. -- also are critical. But so is shaking up staff in a district where failure has become too ingrained.

Teachers should be smart enough to see that. Even if they have the legal right to sue to protect the status quo, it doesn't mean they have to. There's nothing to prevent the union from -- just this once -- voluntarily putting kids first.

Signing a contract with the district does not have to amount to taking out a contract on students.


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