The bitter sniping that has been brewing between some parents and the Buffalo Teachers Federation turned uglier Thursday as parents demanded the union concede to some changes in its contract that are more than cosmetic.
About 30 protesters stationed themselves outside BTF headquarters at Niagara Street and Porter Avenue to insist the union surrender a rider in its contract that provides free cosmetic surgery for Buffalo teachers. The more than $9 million in taxpayer funds used to pay for those surgeries over the past two years could be applied, instead, to the cost of covering sorely needed after-school programs in the district, parents contended.
"With $9 million, we can fund an after-school program in every failing school in the district," said Samuel Radford III, who led Thursday's rally.
Radford, the president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, and BTF President Philip Rumore have been trading barbs over whether teachers or parents are largely to blame for high drop-out rates and low student performance in the district. Radford has expressed frustration both with the union and the School Board over the state's suspension of $5.6 million in funds targeted for persistently low achieving schools in the district because both parties have been unable to settle on a teacher-evaluation plan that is acceptable to the state.
In the absence of progress on that front, Radford challenged the union to demonstrate its priorities by giving up what he called something extravagant and frivolous in order to benefit students in the district.
"How could we spend $9.3 million for 500 people?" he asked, referring to the two-year price tag for the cosmetic surgery rider.
"How is it that we go for that? And they say they have a right to get $9.3 million for face jobs, and our kids can't read and write? That's absolutely unacceptable," he added.
He said the district "paid that money directly out of its pocket, because the district is self-insured."
That's $9.3 million out of taxpayers' pockets that went to face-lifts, breast enhancement surgery and other unnecessary procedures, he said. "And it wasn't just for the teachers. It was for them and their families," he added.
No one from the BTF came outside during Thursday's demonstration. The district is currently on spring break. Reached by telephone after the rally, Rumore said Radford should be talking to the School Board.
"We've been talking to [the board] for eights years about this," he said. "It's worse than beating a dead horse; it's like beating a mummified horse."
"As soon as we reach a contract settlement," the union president said, "[the cosmetic rider] is gone. Sam [Radford] knows that."
Rumore said the union would give up the cosmetic surgery rider, but only if school district negotiators are willing to give up something in return.
"As far as [the protesters] parading up and down outside BTF headquarters, they should be organizing the community to ensure that their students come to school, since we have the worst [student] absenteeism rate in the state," Rumore added.
That often-repeated refrain from Rumore seemed to upset Radford.
"When we start back to school after the Easter break, [Buffalo teachers] can negotiate for some real change and stop all the rhetoric, stop doing commercials and public service announcements calling for parents to make sure their kids come to school and deal with the issues of absenteeism and focus on the things [teachers] can control," Radford said.
Meanwhile, Radford distributed copies of a memorandum of understanding that he said the District Parent Coordinating Council is requesting the School Board formally negotiate with the teachers union.
The proposed agreement would allow for a change in the contract that currently requires the district to select coaches from within the ranks of the teachers union. The change would expand the candidate pool to include those who are not certified teachers but who possess other training and experience in specific coaching areas.
"Right now you have to be a certified teacher to be a coach. You don't have to know anything about the sport. You don't have to be a certified coach to be a coach in [the school district]," Radford said.
"Sometimes, the difference between whether a child succeeds in school or not is not [due to] the teachers; it's the coach."
He added that if the coach is somebody who doesn't know anything about the sport, have any expertise i the sport and "really may be doing it [only] for some extra money," then the pool of candidates should be opened to someone who knows the sport.
Barry Davis was among a few prospective coaches in various sports and extracurricular activities who attended Thursday's protest. Davis, a chess coach, said he is an assistant to the coach-in-standing at Bishop Timon-St. Jude Catholic High School and performs coaching duties for the University at Buffalo Chess Club on the UB North Campus.
"I teach a nice, large group of children at School 74 in Hamlin Park and I'm trying to go through the process of peeling the layers back so that, perhaps, [we can] do this thing throughout the inner city, because our children really need this kind of instruction and mentorship from people who are qualified," Davis said.
Asked his opinion of the BTF certified coaches currently working in the Buffalo Public Schools, Davis replied: "They're artful administrators, great organizers but in this particular area, there are few that have the expertise to do it, and I'm one of the few."
Rumore said coaches are welcome to apply for positions, as long as they're district-certified. "If they want to get a job with the [Buffalo] Board of Education, they should get certified and apply for a job," he said.
Radford maintained that the union would consider signing the memorandum of understanding proposed by the District Parent Coordinating Council, if the union genuinely cared about students instead of being concerned about their own interests.
"Sign the [memorandum of understanding]. Let the $9.3 million come out of that account, go into the compact school program and guess what? We'll set the after-school programs up. Whatever time you leave [at the end of the school day], go. We'll come into those schools and we'll coach the basketball in this gym. We won't have to fight to get [access to] a field," Radford said.