In a rare contest for the presidency of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, the two candidates challenging incumbent Philip Rumore are raising questions about the fairness of the process.
The questions come in a race that will determine who takes a key role setting the direction of the Buffalo Public Schools. The newly elected union leaders will have the responsibility of negotiating a new teacher contract, revamping the district’s evaluation system and dealing with plans to turn around struggling schools.
And ultimately, many say, the success or failure of Buffalo’s education system – hinging in part on relations between the union and the district – will determine the future of the city.
“I just want, for everyone, a fair and honest election,” said Marc Bruno, a Riverside Institute of Technology teacher who is challenging Rumore for the second time. “In democracy, you should have trust in the system – not ‘We’ve been doing this a long time; trust us.’ ”
Voting is already underway, and Rumore faces challengers Bruno and Patrick Foster. The ballots will be tallied Saturday.
The challengers have raised concerns about virtually every step of the long-standing process used to continuously return Rumore to the post during his 34-year tenure as president. During that time, Rumore has faced maybe a half-dozen challengers in the biennial elections.
“When you’re not challenged, no one questions the process,” said teacher Katie LoTempio, who worked with Bruno during his last bid to unseat Rumore. “People are at a point where they’re ready for change, and I think part of that change should be the election process.”
Rumore contends that the process is fair, and designed so that teachers have privacy when voting.
“I’m bound by the same rules that they are,” Rumore said. “I think it would be best to start talking about the good things they plan to do for the teachers. I guess when you have nothing else to say, you look for something to criticize.”
Still, his challengers are pushing for changes to the process. Rumore’s opponents tried to get the union to establish clear guidelines to regulate the election, including hiring a certified public accounting firm to handle the ballots. A resolution proposing such changes, however, failed, 47-31, in a vote of the union’s Council of Delegates.
“I think it’s just been an archaic process where oftentimes there was an uncontested election,” said Foster, a teacher at Lafayette High School. “You don’t want there to be any doubts. You want it to be airtight.”
Among the concerns are that candidates do not have access to mailing addresses for the union’s membership, so they are not able to directly send campaign materials to teachers. Any mailings must go through the BTF, with candidates paying both postal costs and for the staff time needed to prepare the mailings.
“The teachers don’t want their names and addresses given out,” Rumore said. “That would be a violation of their trust.”
Rumore was the only candidate to send information to BTF households. His printed material arrived on the same day as the ballots.
“I find that troubling,” said teacher Joseph Marciniak. “I just feel there might be a disadvantage to anyone challenging the incumbents.”
The union offers all candidates an opportunity to publish their platforms in the union newsletter. But this year, newsletters distributed throughout the district included errors in the platforms for all three candidates, and most teachers did not receive the information until days after they got their ballots.
Other concerns center on the process for collecting and counting ballots, overseen by the union’s election committee.
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, which is then put in a second envelope to be mailed back to a post office box.
Until this year, the key to that post office box was kept in a desk at the union office, essentially giving anyone access to the box that contained the ballots. Foster said that his understanding is the union changed that – after pushback from Rumore’s opponents – by turning the key over to the election committee.
Over the years, teachers have also raised concerns that the BTF tracks whom they vote for, although several who have witnessed the counting of the ballots – including two who worked with Bruno – said that is unlikely.
Ballots are counted at the BTF office, where staff members open all envelopes in an open room where each candidate can have two observers present. They remove all of the unmarked envelopes from the ones in which they were mailed.
Although members must include their name and school on the external envelope, observers of the process say, staff members use that information to verify that the ballot is from a union member and to tally how many votes come from each school.
Once that process is done, they take the ballots out of the unmarked envelope.
That’s where more problems arise.
The ballots are turned over to an outside agency, Dutch Mill Data Processing Co., to tally in the basement of the union offices. During the last election, that was set to happen in an office behind a glass window where observers could see the workers, but could not see the ballots or hear what was happening.
Several people who showed up to observe the process protested, and were ultimately allowed to sit in a hallway outside where they could hear the counters calling off names, but still could not see the actual ballots.
“I don’t believe that there was any wrongdoing that occurred,” said John Birr, who also worked as an observer for Bruno. “My problem with the process is there are way too many opportunities. To me this whole process should be as transparent as possible.”