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Pressure rises as teachers union, Buffalo School District try to break long contract stalemate

After numerous failed attempts to negotiate a new contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, both union and school district leaders appear ready to double down on their efforts to strike an agreement.

Negotiators on both sides declined to say much following last week’s meeting with a mediator from the state Public Employee Relations Board but expressed optimism about moving forward. They scheduled two more meetings in the coming weeks.

“I think all sides felt there was a reason to schedule two more meetings,” said BTF President Philip Rumore, who has declined to attend a number of negotiating meetings over the summer and has been known to walk out of bargaining sessions.

This latest round of negotiations comes amid a backdrop of mounting pressure to settle the contract, new Superintendent Kriner Cash promising tough reforms, and a state receivership law that allows him to make sweeping changes at 25 struggling schools.

Tensions also remain high among teachers, and speculation about a rolling strike has been circulating throughout the city. Since it is illegal for teachers to strike, that tactic would involve teachers at a particular school all calling in sick on the same day.

Cash, noting he does not want to negotiate in the media, has said the current contract terms are not conducive to the reforms he wants to implement. The state’s receivership law allows him to make changes at 25 targeted schools outside of the BTF agreement, although that law likely faces a court challenge.

All of this occurs as the district faces pressure from the federal government to revamp admissions policies to settle a civil rights complaint after rejecting the major recommendations of consultant Gary Orfield.

“The only thing I can tell you is, I’ve never seen this district with so many irons in the fire,” said Rumore, who has led the BTF for three decades. “You’ve got receivership. We have to develop a new teacher evaluation. We have these negotiations, a new superintendent, the Orfield report. I don’t think in all my years I’ve seen so many things pulling in different directions.”

How contract talks play out will likely set the tone for relations between the BTF and Cash as they deal with the other issues, and could foreshadow the role the union will play as the superintendent moves forward with his plans to overhaul the struggling system.

Although those on both sides declined to comment on what was discussed Friday, previous offers made by the district reflect the board’s priorities – and the fact that they are willing to pay significant dollars to reach an agreement. In June, district officials said they put forth an offer that included a 23 percent average salary increase for teachers, in exchange for more time for classroom instruction and teacher contributions to health insurance costs.

This latest round of talks opens a new chapter for a contract that has been expired for more than a decade, with negotiations stalled by the 2004 wage freeze and subsequent legal challenges.

Each side has rejected prior proposals from mediators. More recently, the district has ramped up its efforts to pressure the union to negotiate. They brought in Terry O’Neil, an attorney with experience negotiating contracts across the state. In recent months, they have also taken their message public, spending $20,000 on contracts with public relations firm Eric Mower + Associates and issuing a series of news releases to share their positions with the public.

“Our new state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, recently made it very clear to the Buffalo Board of Education that if schools don’t improve fast, drastic means will be applied,” O’Neil said in a July news release when Rumore refused to come to the negotiating table. “We can’t improve schools without a new teachers contract and we can’t get a new contract to our teachers if the BTF refuses to meet with us to negotiate.”

Those publicity efforts, however, went quiet following Friday’s meeting, during which both sides agreed not to discuss talks with outside parties.

“We met, we think it was productive, and we scheduled two more meetings” was all O’Neil would say after Friday’s meeting. “I’m hoping we can make some progress.”

But in talks that have dragged on for more than a decade, whether simply agreeing on meeting dates is reason for optimism has yet to be seen.