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Any new contract for Buffalo’s teachers has to help meet the needs of students

It’s back to the drawing board for the Buffalo School District and its teachers union, but the district’s sensible rejection of a mediator’s proposal shouldn’t discourage the two sides from continuing to negotiate a new contract – one that gives both sides something of value.

We’re not sure what came over the fact-finder in delivering a proposal that does too little to meet the district’s needs and was bound to be rejected. The only possible explanation is that by dangling money in front of the union, the proposal would encourage its leaders to continue negotiating with the district.

In fact, both sides have more than enough incentive to be serious. Teachers aren’t exactly suffering, since many are still getting annual step raises, but pay scales haven’t changed since the most recent pact expired more than 10 years ago. By any standard, that’s a long time for public servants performing essential work.

But the district needs more management flexibility, including the right to extend the school day and school year. The fact-finder made no recommendations on those important issues. What he did propose were an 11.8 percent pay increase in exchange for a small contribution to health care costs and an end to the crazy rider covering the costs of elective cosmetic surgery.

It’s not nearly enough, but it was heartening that Philip Rumore characterized the report as “a basis for continued negotiations to reach a settlement.” We hope he is serious, but seriousness requires that Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, be willing to dig deeper into the issues that are holding back Buffalo’s children. Their needs, after all, are the reason even to have teachers, and those needs are not being met.

More proof of that depressing fact – as if more were needed – came on Thursday with the state’s earlier-than-usual release of graduation rates. Alone among the Big Five school districts, Buffalo’s rate ticked down, falling to 55.5 percent from last year’s 56 percent. The other districts – Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York – all saw small increases.

What is more, five Buffalo schools – Lafayette, Riverside, Bennett, Burgard and International Prep – graduated less than half their students, with Lafayette graduating only 16 percent of its students over four years. That was a new low point for the district.

It would be flatly immoral to conclude a new contract that does not take significant steps to address the issues behind those relentlessly destructive numbers. Raises for teachers are important, but they won’t deal with those problems.

So the question is: What are Rumore and the teachers prepared to change to ensure that Buffalo students have their best chance for an education that leads to successful lives? Similarly, what will the district do, if it will not accept the fact-finder’s recommendations?