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Union has to bend; Rumore must find a way for BTF to work with Buffalo School District

Little in the Buffalo School District is more influential or troubling than the disastrous relationship between administrators and the Buffalo Teachers Federation. In the nation's third-poorest city, issues ranging from class size to school access to improving student performances are subject to the sway of an overly restrictive contract and a dysfunctional relationship.

It's a problem of legalities and personalities. For city schools to make headway, those factors need to change. And while that prospect should fall well within the realm of the possible, history offers little reason for optimism.

Part of the problem is that while the teachers union holds tremendous contractual clout, it does not exist to improve the education of children. That's why teachers exist, but the union is there to protect what it sees as the interests of teachers and, it must be said, of itself. It is, in many ways, simply the nature of the beast.

What is more, the marketplace protects teachers and other public sector employees in ways that are alien to those who work in the private sector. Yes, teachers have been laid off and their pain is as sharp as anyone else's. But the Buffalo School District will always exist. There is no chance that union policies or competitive factors will cause it to close. It's not Bethlehem Steel.

Thus, public sector unions -- especially in Western New York and including the BTF -- can more easily ignore the economic pressures that in the private sector induce labor and management to search for common ground.

Still, teachers want their students to succeed; they didn't spend years in college in order to watch children fail or to serve in persistently low-achieving schools. What is more, unions in other parts of the country have found ways to bridge what can become a yawning gap between the contractual interests of teachers and the educational interests of students.

Thus, it can be done here. But will it? An opportunity may be in the offing. With the arrival of Say Yes to Education as an external partner, an influential third party will be drawn into the mix, one with a record of bridging the gap between union and management.

Say Yes to Education is a private, non-profit foundation committed to dramatically increasing high school and college graduation rates among inner-city youth. It is operating in several cities, including Syracuse. The Syracuse Teachers Association has also supported the effort. Dick Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, has praised the program. So has the American Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten.

A third party at the table made a significant difference in the Columbus, Ohio, school district, according to Rhonda Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association. "Before the Panasonic Foundation, we were killing each other," she said.

Also committed to improving education performance, the Panasonic Foundation helped usher into existence alabor-management committee that built trust where there was none. From that platform, the district and union were able to agree on classroom changes that have significantly bolstered student performance.

If labor and management want it, that change could happen here. Among the questions, though, is whether BTF President Philip Rumore wants it. In office for 30 years, Rumore has been the lone constant in Buffalo education. He is not the only player in Buffalo's dreadful education performance, but his fingerprints can be found at the crime scene.

For his part, Rumore says he likes the Say Yes to Education approach not so much for its help in improving labor relations, but for building bridges between individual schools and the central office. That's a start.

In fairness, the BTF has not been alone in fostering dysfunction. The school district has, often enough, been foolish in the contracts it signed and lackadaisical in adhering to their requirements. But the district's obligation is to students; the union's is to teachers. Especially in Buffalo, those gaps will be difficult to bridge. Still, leaders have found ways to make it work in Columbus and in Syracuse. There is no benefit to giving up on it happening here. But some things will have to change.


Tomorrow: Parents, students and the public

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