In the past three decades, much has changed in the Buffalo Public School system: superintendents, School Board members, laws and mandates.
But there has been one constant – Philip Rumore as president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
Now, Rumore faces a rare challenge for his job, with two candidates vying to oust him from the position that has given him great influence over the district.
Marc Bruno and Patrick Foster say it’s time for union members with fresh ideas and a blank slate to take over the organization.
“We’re appreciative of the leadership we’ve had over the years,” said Foster, a teacher at Lafayette High School. “We’re not looking to attack Phil, but we do feel like there have been missed opportunities.”
The election process, which begins this week, comes at a time of significant change and uncertainty for the school district – and its roughly 3,000 teachers. The last School Board election resulted in a power shift on the board, and the new majority is pushing for changes such as a longer school day that will affect the teachers’ workday.
A new superintendent will take the reins in the coming months and is expected to execute changes being pushed by the majority.
The district also faces heightened scrutiny from the state amid threats of giving the Buffalo mayor control over the district.
Meanwhile, teachers continue to work under a contract that expired more than a decade ago.
It is a critical time for the Buffalo Public Schools, and whoever takes the top union spot will likely play a key role in setting the direction for the district’s future. Along with the president, union members will vote for the vice president, secretary, treasurer and executive committee members.
Rumore said he understands the frustration many teachers feel about the long-expired contract, but points to the success he has had fighting for their rights amid an onslaught of state mandates, including an evaluation system.
“Our platform is experience,” Rumore said. “We’ve had a lot of battles. There have been many victories.”
The contract, however, could be the main factor in how teachers cast their ballots, with Rumore’s opponents pointing to growing frustration among teachers over the stalled negotiations.
“My big thing is if he can’t get us a contract, then what is he doing?” said Bruno, a teacher at Riverside High School. “How many empty promises will he make?”
A tense relationship
After winning the presidency 34 years ago, Rumore has faced maybe a half-dozen challengers in the biennial union elections.
The lack of opposition underscores the power and influence he has amassed in his decades as president, as well as a level of satisfaction among teachers for the work he has done.
In his time on the job, the union president has secured strong contracts for teachers that resulted in pay raises and stood up for their rights on issues ranging from school turnarounds to teacher evaluations.
He turned the numbers in Buffalo’s teaching ranks into political force, elevating the union’s role in local politics by offering financial support and manpower to those running for office. That included races outside of the School Board, such as City Council and the State Legislature.
Rumore also had a hand in founding the state’s Working Families Party, which created a union-backed third party line for candidates.
Still, much has changed since he faced his last bid for re-election in 2013.
A legal battle that tied up contract negotiations has been resolved, yet Rumore has made little progress striking a new agreement for teachers. A new board majority seems determined to push changes to teacher work rules and benefits. Those stressors come along with continued pressure from the state to perform, and an aggressive push to overhaul teacher evaluations.
Rumore’s opponents say navigating these challenges in the new education landscape will require trust and relationships that the current union leadership does not have.
“The rapport between the district and BTF has suffered over the years,” Foster said. “There has been a teeming of mistrust.”
“There has to be a level of mutual trust established,” Foster added. “That’s going to take a paradigm shift.”
Foster, who has been a teacher for 17 years, said his main motivation for running is to secure teachers more authority over the changes that are happening in public education.
“We want a greater deal of professional control over how our schools are doing,” he said.
His Renew BTF slate includes Mel Holden for vice president, Kevin Gibson for secretary and Kristen Konrad Mendoza for treasurer. The group has the backing of a 16-member steering committee with representatives from 10 district schools.
To give teachers that voice, Foster believes they need to be involved in conversations with district leaders that continue outside of contract negotiations. The union contract now has a provision calling for a council of teachers and district leaders to meet regularly to troubleshoot issues that affect classrooms and learning.
“That has not been happening,” Foster said. “But it’s a vehicle for conversation.”
Bruno is a well-known and outspoken Riverside High School teacher who regularly speaks at School Board meetings.
One of his main issues is attendance. He keeps detailed accounts of the number of students who miss his class every day, and says the district will fail to make any progress until it addresses the large number of students who regularly miss class. He has also advocated for an alternative school to serve students with behavior problems.
His BTF Rising slate includes Keith Hughes for vice president, Dawn Townsell for secretary and Mike Vacanti for treasurer.
As far as contract talks are concerned, Bruno said he feels it’s important to protect retirees and those who are already in the system. Any changes, he noted, could be made for incoming employees.
Bruno and his team also say public relations should be a union focus, particularly getting the word out about real issues facing teachers and students, such as the high number of students living in poverty.
The candidate points to a $500,000 grant the union received that was supposed to be used for public relations. Rather than drawing attention to the issues, however, that money was spent on a “Buffalo Schools: Believe” campaign that promoted the district in the week before the School Board election. The campaign was run in partnership with the Buffalo Parent-Teachers Organization.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what the problems are here,” Bruno said. “People think my school is failing because of teachers.”
A political process
Even as two challengers signal a level of discontent among the teaching ranks, the election results will largely hang on how many union members cast ballots.
And among those who may want change in the BTF, the two contenders could feasibly split the votes, giving Rumore an advantage.
Both Bruno and Foster acknowledge that is a possibility, but since the winner must get at least 50 percent of the vote, both hope they will be able to force a runoff, which might draw even more attention to the race.
Both slates have been getting their message out via websites, Facebook and Twitter.
Foster’s team is visiting schools and meeting with groups of teachers. They hope to get into as many buildings as they can by next week.
Both candidates have also raised questions about the election process, which they say deters people from voting because of concerns about secrecy.
The voting takes place via mail in the first two weeks of May. The BTF mails teachers ballots, which they put in an unmarked envelope, then a second envelope to mail back to a post office box.
Rumore maintains the process is fair, allowing teachers to vote at their convenience and in the privacy of their own home. He says that BTF staff collects, but does not open the unmarked envelopes. Rather, they turn them over to an outside company to open and tally.
Still, teachers have in the past expressed concerns that current union leaders can track who they vote for.
Bruno put forward a resolution to the BTF Council of Delegates last week to establish rules and guidelines for the election process, but it was defeated.
Bruno also raised the concern that BTF will not give candidates the mailing address of union members.
If candidates want to send out literature, it must go through the BTF office.
The process, Bruno says, seems to favor the incumbents.
“He controls pretty much everything,” Bruno said of Rumore. “He has all of the advantages of an incumbent, and then some.”