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After rejecting district’s contract offer, BTF must show it really wants a deal

It comes as little surprise that the Buffalo Teachers Federation rejected a new contract proposal from the Buffalo School District. It comes as even less surprise that it was rejected with BTF President Philip Rumore’s trademark overkill. Not only did teachers not like the offer, he said, but they were “furious, angry and insulted” over a proposal that was “like a slap in the face.”

OK, fine. Now what?

For the record, the contract offered a 10 percent raise with teachers paying 10 percent to 20 percent of costs for health care benefits and working a longer day. Teachers haven’t had a contractual raise since the last pact expired in 2004, although most have received annual step increases and have been benefiting from a generous health plan that covers elective cosmetic surgery.

Still, given the ongoing and historic enmity between the union and the district – some of which is strategic – and also the nature of public-sector labor negotiations, it’s no surprise that the BTF rejected the contract. It would have been startling if it didn’t.

But what happens next will help to demonstrate whether the BTF leadership is truly interested in securing a new contract. There is plenty of reason to suspect that it’s not.

Given the district’s economic and educational circumstances, any contract will require significant changes. Health insurance costs and the lengths of the school day and school year are only some of them. The district also has sought more authority in assigning teachers to where their skills are most needed.

But those changes can be forestalled as long as the teachers are working under terms of the long-expired contract, and they still get their step raises. It’s counter-intuitive but not illogical for the union to cling to what it has. The wrinkle in this pattern is the state’s new receivership law, which, if it survives the inevitable court challenge, could allow the district to impose changes.

Still, Rumore insists each September that teachers want and deserve a new contract and, whether he is sincere or not, they do deserve a new agreement. But it’s going to have to be a contract that simultaneously benefits and hurts both sides.

The question now is if the BTF follows its programmatic rejection with a counterproposal that is serious and responsible – that is, an offer that lays out what the teachers want and what they are willing to give up to help bridge the differences between the union’s position and the district’s.

If the union makes such an offer – and depending upon its contents – then we may be able to conclude that its leaders are seriously working to produce a new contract for their members. If no counteroffer is forthcoming, that would offer compelling evidence that a new agreement is less important than maintaining the status quo.

But if the need to serve the interests of Buffalo students matters, negotiation is necessary. Changes in the structure of the district are critical if the quality of education is to improve in the city schools, and there are only two ways that can happen: contractually or through the receivership law that, in Buffalo, would vest Superintendent Kriner Cash with the authority to make changes that supercede the contract.

The former would be better, since it would draw teachers into the important work ahead, but for that to happen, the union and the district have to be serious about wanting to negotiate a contract that both sides can live with. It’s hard to be optimistic, given the years of hostility between the union and district, but that doesn’t change the facts of education in Buffalo.