After more than a decade of failing to reach a contract agreement with the teachers union, the Buffalo School Board unanimously agreed last week to hire a downstate labor law attorney.
Terry O’Neil specializes in public sector bargaining and has a long history of representing school districts.
“Terry is known across the state and known locally,” interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie said. “He had an ability to move an agenda.”
By shaking up the district’s negotiating team, the School Board intends to force a sharp turn in negotiations. The board agreed to pay O’Neil $350 an hour to serve as the new chief negotiator in bargaining efforts with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
“He has a lot of knowledge,” said board member Larry Quinn. “He struck me as a person who knows how to make a deal.”
A Long Island-based lawyer with the Bond, Schoeneck and King law firm, O’Neil previously dealt with the BTF in the late 1990s when the City of Buffalo hired him to help iron out a back pay agreement with the teachers union, which ultimately went on strike. A deal was reached in 2000.
O’Neil’s bio references his work in Buffalo, as well as the fact that he has represented more than 20 school districts, including Yonkers, as a labor and employment law attorney. Much of his school-related work in Buffalo and Yonkers, however, appears to date to the 1990s, though he’s apparently also worked on behalf of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood.
Terrence M. Connors, a local trial lawyer and close friend of O’Neil’s since high school, described him as a sharp and outgoing competitor focused on getting the job done. He also mentioned that O’Neil is a strong card player – poker, in particular.
“He’s good with high stakes, no question about it,” Connors said.
O’Neil has been involved in a number of difficult and protracted negotiations and has resolved them amicably, Connors added.
Some unions that have dealt with him, however, paint him in a less positive light. John Eshoo, who served as staff director and executive vice president for the Yonkers Federation of Teachers when O’Neil represented the district, gave him a mixed review. While O’Neil would occasionally own up to mistakes, Eshoo said, he also spent more time talking than doing.
“He was a very sharp talker. He likes to schmooze you and drag things out,” Eshoo said, adding, “He’s very slick. He’s very hard-nosed.”
O’Neil negotiated two contracts with the Yonkers teachers union in the 1990s, one that went relatively smoothly and a subsequent one in 1999 that resulted in a teacher’s strike. The second contract negotiation involved a new superintendent and more demands for work rule concessions. Negotiations went so poorly that the union walked out and teachers went on strike for several days before the Public Employee Relations Board stepped in, and an arbitrator helped hammer out a final agreement, Eshoo said.
“He was there to try to break us,” Eshoo said. “He was bragging he’s never had a strike in negotiating. We were his first.”
O’Neil did not return requests from The News for comment.
Whether O’Neil will be able to make progress with the Buffalo Teachers Federation is unknown, though the push for a settlement is strong. O’Neil will take over as chief negotiator for James Schmit, a lawyer with Jaeckle, Fleishmann and Mugle, who Ogilvie said will continue to serve in an advisory capacity.
After more than 10 years of negotiations, both the School Board and the BTF agree that Buffalo teachers deserve a raise, but many members of the board want that raise tied to contract changes that would give the district more work rule flexibility.
The board majority, in particular, wants the district to have greater freedom to establish longer school days, longer school years, and greater staffing flexibility through diminished seniority rights. The majority also seeks fewer restrictions on how and when schools can offer teacher training. And it believes the ability for the next superintendent to succeed is dependent on reaching an agreement with the teachers union on these key issues.
“I think we all want to jump-start the negotiations on a contract,” Quinn said. “The feeling was a new leadership team was a good thing to do because it’s been 12 years since we’ve had a new contract.”
BTF President Philip Rumore, meanwhile, faces growing impatience from his own members over the lack of a contract, as evidenced by the two slates of candidates that challenged him and his top leadership team – unsuccessfully – in union elections that wrapped up Saturday.
Rumore said he’s not disturbed by the board retaining O’Neil as much as he’s disturbed that the district canceled negotiations for the month of May in order to hire O’Neil.
The BTF has filed a legal notice arguing that the district has been negotiating in bad faith because of what the union considers to be foot-dragging.
“If they were looking for somebody else, they still could have been meeting with us,” Rumore said.
Board member Carl Paladino responded that he doesn’t expect O’Neil to get along with BTF leaders.
“I think he’s exactly what the doctor ordered,” he said. “I’m sure Phil Rumore doesn’t like it, but that’s life in the big city. We’re done playing games.”