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State mediator to meet with Buffalo school district and teachers union officials

The state’s top mediator will come to Buffalo on Friday to try to jump-start negotiations between the school district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Kevin B. Flanigan, the director of the Office of Conciliation at the state Public Employment Relations Board, wants to see whether the two sides can avoid further litigation and if they can find a “mutually acceptable path” to arbitration.

“Mr. Flanigan will come out and have some discussion to assess what can be done to reach an agreement,” said Anthony Zumbolo, the Public Employment Relations Board’s executive director. “That’s really the effort, the approach and interest of the agency: to help parties reach an agreement.”

Members of the teachers union have been without a contract for 11 years. Negotiations have not progressed well; both sides filed charges against the other, claiming a failure to bargain in good faith. The BTF has refused to meet with the district since June 16, when the district presented its updated list of proposals.

If Flanigan cannot get the two sides to return to the bargaining table on their own, the next step could be to assign a conciliator to the case.

PERB has already sent a mediator and then a fact-finder. Appointing a conciliator would be the next step under the state’s Taylor Law.

A conciliator can make recommendations but does not have the power to impose a settlement or conditions on either side.

In letters to Flanigan dated June 19 and July 17, BTF President Philip Rumore accused the district of “moving the goal posts” and asked for a “super-conciliator” to take over negotiations.

Terry O’Neil, the Buffalo school district’s chief negotiator, opposed that idea in his July 13 correspondence to Flanigan. O’Neil contended such a move would be premature because of the lack of negotiating since the fact-finder’s report last December, PERB’s last official action.

“We objected because we’d only had one session” on June 16, said Nathaniel Kuzma, the district’s executive director of labor relations. “We’ve only had one meaningful bargaining session since the release of the fact-finder’s report.”

An additional 10 bargaining sessions had been scheduled over the summer, but the BTF refused to meet without a conciliator being present.

Despite the apparent deadlock, both sides have expressed a desire to resume negotiations, Flanigan said in an Aug. 5 letter to both Rumore and O’Neil.

“It is my conclusion at this time that the parties will not likely return to the bargaining table without intervention, due to functional preconditions unacceptable to the other party,” Flanigan wrote.

PERB would not be favorable, he added, to sending a conciliator before there are additional negotiations, especially after the work done by the fact-finder.

Leaders from both sides said they welcome Flanigan’s visit.

“We are eager for Mr. Flanigan to be here on Friday,” Kuzma said. “And we’re eager to be at the table again with the federation so that we can resolve the contract that in our minds does not benefit anybody in the district – teachers or students.”

“We are looking forward to working with PERB and the district to get this thing done,” Rumore said.