There aren’t two men in the City of Buffalo who disagree more on the role of the teachers union in the Buffalo schools than Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore and School Board member Larry Quinn. But on Wednesday, they faced off in a discussion marked more by cool disagreement than hot debate.
Quinn argued the BTF and other district unions have rigid work rules that make it impossible for the district to manage its own operations. Rumore countered that many of the complaints lobbed against the teachers union have no grounding in reality. The same union contract that governs teachers in struggling schools also governs teachers in successful schools like City Honors, he stated.
While their differences of opinion were sharp on this primary issue, the hour-long conversation covered a wide range of topics in the luncheon debate hosted by Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center.
• On the selection of a new superintendent: Quinn said the past three national searches have produced superintendents who didn’t deliver results. James Weimer, principal of Emerson School of Hospitality, who has been handpicked by the board majority, has a proven track record of success.
Rumore said he doesn’t know if a national search is needed, but a broader search than the board majority’s current process is perfectly reasonable to expect. Weimer might be the best choice, by how can anyone be sure if he isn’t being judged against other candidates, Rumore argued.
• On bad teachers: Rumore said it’s wrong to blame teachers for classroom conditions beyond their control and to overlook key issues like poverty, crowded classrooms and the lack of adequate interventions for struggling children. He also said the BTF doesn’t want bad teachers, but if the district doesn’t document its case against a teacher, that’s not the union’s fault.
Quinn said he’s not blaming good teachers hamstrung by a bad system, but he also said it’s nearly impossible to fire truly bad teachers because of the way the rules are written.
“Last year, not a single teacher was terminated for cause,” he said. “In theory, it sounds nice. It reality, it doesn’t work.”
• On the need for more school funding: Quinn said that while the district does need more money, it first needs to address how money is currently being misspent and funneled away from classrooms. He said this includes: allocating nearly $70 million a year for retiree health insurance, $5 million for the BTF cosmetic surgery rider and the thousands of paid personal days off for teachers.
Rumore said it’s wrong to compare the funding needs of the Buffalo school district to suburban school districts that don’t have any of the high-needs students and poverty levels that Buffalo has.
The city school district carries a disproportionate load of immigrant students, students with disabilities and children from broken homes who suffer from trauma.
“This is going to be a shock to everyone: Of course it’s going to take more funding,” he said.