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Vital school reform efforts would end if union succeeds in taking over School Board

Buffalo Public Schools are on the brink of returning to the bad old days thanks to the unhealthy influence of the teachers union.

An aggressive campaign by New York State United Teachers is on the verge of reshaping the Buffalo School Board and putting an end to reform efforts.

The union worked to knock off the ballot members of the School Board’s majority bloc and those who might be inclined to vote with them.

West District incumbent James M. Sampson, the board president and often the adult voice in the room, has been knocked from the May 3 ballot, at least temporarily.

The ballot spots for two other pro-reform candidates also are at risk. North District incumbent Jason M. McCarthy and East District candidate Colleen E. Russell are being challenged in State Supreme Court.

Anyone living or doing business in the city should be alarmed. By supporting candidates opposed to reforms in the school district, the union is acting in its own self-interest rather than in the public interest. In the end, it’s Buffalo’s schoolchildren and the city’s newfound rejuvenation that will suffer.

Voice of reason

Sampson’s absence would be deeply felt on the nine-member board. It would put in grave jeopardy the reform bloc’s one-vote majority and its agenda, which includes improving accountability and more parent choice.

Sampson, who since joining the board three years ago has proven his ability and willingness to work with not only his majority bloc but minority bloc members, fell 31 signatures short of the 500 needed to make the ballot. NYSUT and its affiliate, the Buffalo Teachers Federation, provided support to his opponent. They gathered signatures, walking the streets to ensure Jennifer L. Mecozzi would replace someone they see as a threat to business as usual. And NYSUT filed an objection to Sampson’s nominating petitions.

The BTF has been operating without a contract since 2004. Replacing board members not inclined to agree to union terms with more sympathetic candidates is a powerful motivator for the union.

The problem is in what the union wants to achieve versus what the district needs in order to thrive.

The fact is that the union is interested in the welfare of its members. Individual teachers may be utterly devoted to their students; some may even care about how their interests affect taxpayers. The union doesn’t. That’s not its job.

What the union wants

So, however much NYSUT or the BTF insists that it truly cares about the students, it’s not fundamentally true. What the union cares about is canning teacher evaluations and, to that point, undermining the state assessments given to students. It cares about increasing the number of teachers – which may or may not be a worthy idea – but mainly for the purpose of increasing its political clout. It cares about ending receivership and limiting charter schools.

The union wants a School Board that believes that the solution to the district’s problems is more money, especially for teacher salaries, without getting anything in return. Without changes in restrictive work rules, more money for teachers would mean cuts elsewhere.

The BTF has been working under an expired contract for 12 years and its members certainly deserve a new one. But it hasn’t shown any sign of serious intent in bargaining, evidently preferring to continue working under the terms of the expired contract, which remain in force, rather than agree to the kind of givebacks that the current board is sensibly seeking. Those include a longer school day and longer school year, in line with other districts, and an end to the infamous cosmetic surgery rider.

Indeed, some observers believe that the union has been holding off on negotiating seriously until it can evaluate its success in tilting the board in its favor.

Fair contract should be the goal

Yes, teacher interests need to be represented on the School Board, but by people who understand the concept of balance.

Any district should want a fair contract for its teachers, as long as it is consistent with the needs of students and taxpayers. Tunnel vision does not serve a school district well, but tunnel vision is what union-backed candidates would likely bring to the table.

It is plain why the union wants to get rid of Sampson. He is a gentleman who brings a clear-eyed vision to improving educational outcomes.

During his time as board president, graduation rates are up and the district has a new superintendent who most board members agree appears to be doing a good job under exceptionally trying circumstances.

While there has been bad behavior on the part of the board majority, the members at least have been trying to drive change in a moribund district.

Sampson stood up against majority bloc member Carl Paladino’s choice for superintendent, eventually allowing the board to unanimously agree on Kriner Cash.

Sampson said it best during a meeting with The News’ editorial board. This is an important time in Buffalo’s evolution. Creating an urban district that is functional and attractive to parents is a critical piece: “I would hate to see us where we were four or five years ago.”

So would we.