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Buffalo Teachers Federation sues over superintendent’s takeover of 20 schools

The Buffalo Teachers Federation and its parent union on Tuesday filed their lawsuit challenging New York’s receivership law, arguing that it violates teachers’ state and federal rights to collectively negotiate their contracts.

The catalyst for the lawsuit was State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s ruling last year that Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash can impose new contract terms on teachers working at 20 schools in receivership, which could ultimately face an outside takeover. Buffalo is the only district in the state that has asked the commissioner for the power to circumvent the union contract, as the law allows.

“With her decision and order – the very first of its kind – the Commissioner re-wrote long standing terms of the BTF’s collective bargaining agreement, unilaterally imposing entirely new terms and conditions of employment,” the union argues in the lawsuit filed Tuesday morning in State Supreme Court in Albany. “The BTF respectfully submits that the Commissioner’s unprecedented act of re-writing its collective bargaining agreement was arbitrary and capricious, affected by errors of law, violated lawful procedures, and was ultra vires, given that it exceeded her jurisdiction.”

The case also questions the law’s use of standardized test scores, which a state task force deemed unreliable for evaluating teachers, in determining which schools fall into receivership.

BTF President Philip Rumore argues that the case could have repercussions not only for New York teachers, but employees in other public labor unions because the law allows for a government official to step in and change contract terms without negotiating them with the union. The U.S. Constitution prohibits states from passing any law “impairing the obligations of contracts,” and the lawsuit argues that the receivership statute allows Elia to do just that.

“This is huge,” Rumore said. “It’s not about our contract. It’s about a superintendent and a commissioner making decisions without having to negotiate them.”

A State Education Department spokesperson said the commissioner could not comment on the case because it is now in litigation.

The lawsuit attacks various elements of the receivership legislation, from the framework for how it was developed and its implementation, to how Elia handled Buffalo’s request for the power to impose contract terms. Those contract changes could include lengthening the school day, requiring teacher training and forcing staff changes that go against the collective bargaining agreement.

Ultimately, the union wants a judge to nullify her ruling that Cash can impose such contract terms, one of the most significant pieces of the law.

“Buffalo’s teachers are dedicated professionals who work with some of our state’s neediest students,” New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee said in a written statement. “Day in and day out, they are on the front line helping children overcome numerous societal obstacles so they have the chance to succeed. When it comes to enhancing our schools, it is critical that the voice of our teachers is heard.”

Union leaders both locally and at the state level have said they would challenge the law since the State Legislature approved it last April.

Although Cash, as required by the law, did attempt to negotiate the contractual changes with the union, the two parties could not come to an agreement, opening the door for Elia to step in.

The legal challenge argues that the state developed the receivership law based on the federal No Child Left Behind statute that has since expired.

It also raises the question of how the Education Department can use test scores that a state task force deemed unreliable to place schools in the hands of a receiver, who can then make changes without the approval of the school board or teachers union.

“A fundamental part of this is the designation of schools based on standardized tests that a task force the commissioner sat on said aren’t reliable,” Rumore said in an interview. “If it’s not reliable enough to evaluate teachers, how can it be used to evaluate schools?”

Rumore also suggests in his affidavit that Elia knew in advance of the attempted negotiations that she would favor the district’s proposal, citing comments she made to the Buffalo School Board at a meeting over the summer that he believes suggest a bias toward the district.

“I think this community should be very impatient. I think we have to move ...,” she told the board at that meeting, according to the lawsuit. “This is an important opportunity for the Superintendent to take the reins of this and to move forward to support schools and if necessary change some of the things that are in place there to bring success to our kids.”

“We only have 17 school districts in the state that have any schools on the list, and your district is one of only a few that have several schools on the list, so your request would be fast-tracked into my office and I would review it, talk to you, see what had to be done, and make a decision,” she later said.

At that meeting in July, the board did not have a permanent superintendent to act as receiver.

Within a few weeks, Elia suggested hiring Cash for the job.

“The new statute provided for such a resolution,” Rumore states in his affidavit. “and the Superintendent appeared anxious to get this to the Commissioner’s desk.”