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After 11-year stalemate, BTF’s stakes intensify

The Buffalo teachers union faces a challenging future.

First, the School Board unanimously hired a new, battle-tested downstate attorney to serve as its chief negotiator after a decadelong stalemate with the union over a new contract.

Second, after more than three decades as the powerful head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, President Philip Rumore weakly survived the toughest challenge to his leadership, escaping a runoff election by only several dozen votes in a three-way race.

School district leaders view many of the work rules in the teachers contract, which has been expired for 11 years, as relics and obstacles to an education system now under tremendous pressure to meet state standards.

And many of the union’s own members – who are underpaid compared with teachers outside the district – are growing tired of waiting for a settlement to compensate them for shouldering greater job burdens and pressures from the state.

Since teachers last ratified a contract in 2000, independent charter schools have opened and now serve 7,400 city children. Moreover, some long-struggling schools now face the possibility of closure or outside receivership.

In this changing landscape, two things are clear: The divided School Board is increasingly united in the belief that changes in the teachers contract is imperative to delivering better education, and fewer teachers believe that current union leadership is equipped to answer that demand in a way that yields positive results for them.

Rumore, who forestalled a runoff with 52 percent of the vote, expressed frustration that his challengers haven’t gone quietly since the election ended May 16. And he’s equally frustrated that so many union members refused to vote.

The turnout disappointed all sides. While 1,350 ballots were cast – slightly more than in previous years – that accounts for less than 40 percent of the membership. A majority didn’t vote, despite the serious issues facing Buffalo teachers and all of the publicity and campaigning in recent months.

Rumore said he plans to conduct a survey before the end of the school year to get a better sense of what members’ issues are and why so many did not bother to vote.

“We’re not in a position now where we can be divided,” he said.

But the union is divided.

While Rumore was, by far, the largest vote-getter in the election, the number of people who chose to vote for someone else is noteworthy. Challengers Patrick Foster and Mark Bruno called for the union to come together now that the election is over but said there’s clearly a “critical mass” of teachers who want to see changes in how the union represents and communicates with them.

Rumore says he remains determined to negotiate a deal with the district and has asked that the Public Employee Relations Board appoint a “super conciliator” to bring both sides together. Prior third-party attempts to reach compromise have been failures. The union rejected a prior mediator’s report, and the district rejected a later fact-finder’s report.

In the meantime, the union has begun planning to picket outside School Board members’ homes.

Terry O’Neil now enters the fray on behalf of the district. The School Board unanimously voted to hire the downstate public labor law attorney at its last regular meeting to serve as the district’s new chief negotiator.

The Long Island lawyer has negotiated labor contracts on behalf of dozens of districts and municipalities. O’Neil said he has read the mediator’s and fact-finder’s reports, reviewed the BTF contract and met with administrators last week to get up to speed on negotiations.

He interviewed with the School Board before being hired and will meet with board members again this week before their regular public meeting to discuss priorities.

“One of the things the board is unanimous on, is they want changes in the contract that prevent them from delivering the best educational system in the City of Buffalo,” he said.

O’Neil has some history in Buffalo. He previously dealt with the BTF in the late 1990s when he was hired to advise then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello regarding a lingering and costly lawsuit between the union and the district. More recently, he has worked with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood to develop and gain renewals for the charter of Westminster Charter School.

How he’ll do in Buffalo working directly with the litigious BTF and a demanding board has yet to be seen. Though some local union leaders are worried O’Neil is a “hired gun” who will prolong a difficult situation, others believe that his broader knowledge and experience dealing with other municipal unions could be an asset here.

Many point to his work in the Yonkers district, one of the Big 5 urban districts in the state, along with Buffalo.

O’Neil negotiated two contracts with the teachers union there in the 1990s. While one went smoothly, one resulted in a teachers strike for several days in 1999 before an arbitrator stepped in.

“It was very difficult situation,” said Paul C. Citarella, who worked with O’Neil as Yonkers’ human resources director before leaving the district in 2001. “There were probably just too many agendas on the plate, and they got in the way of each other. Hopefully, that’s not going to happen in Buffalo.”

O’Neil and Yonkers union leaders said that in 1999, the district had a tough, new superintendent, Andre J. Hornsby. Dubbed the “horror from Houston” by the union, he had come from Texas with no experience in a union state. Though the district and the union were able to settle the vast majority of their issues, they went to war over a proposed teacher scheduling change.

Hornsby was ultimately fired by the School Board and imprisoned later in his career after being convicted on corruption charges.

Steve Frey, who held leadership positions in the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, said he believes that O’Neil will ultimately be good for Buffalo, even though his own union’s relationship with him was often contentious.

“He’s very good at what he does,” Frey said. “He does all of his homework.”

O’Neil can provide insight to both sides on how deals are made elsewhere across the state, Frey said.

But Frey said O’Neil didn’t always properly characterize the union’s position to the district. O’Neil wasn’t above some game-playing, Frey said, but he wasn’t dishonest, either.

Frey offered some advice for the BTF and the School Board.

“I’ve done a lot of negotiations,” he said. “I’ve done it the hard way and the easy way.”

The hard way: Junk up negotiations with a lot of demands from both sides of varying importance.

“We’re going to spend the next year, year and a half playing with each other,” he said. “Eventually, you’re going to come down with three or four items – three or four things you think you must have.”

The easy way: Each side whittles its demands down to those few key issues from the start, and work from there.

“If you really want a settlement, you can’t go in there with a wish list that you’re never going to get, anyway, so why go down that road?” Frey asked. “You’ll dig in; they’ll dig in. You’re never going to get anywhere.”