In his more than three decades leading the Buffalo Teachers Federation, Philip Rumore has become one of the most influential and controversial figures in the city’s education landscape.
He has gone to great lengths – even jail – to fight for teachers.
And his 35-year tenure as president makes him one of the longest-serving union leaders in the state.
On Wednesday, the regional office of New York State United Teachers recognized him for his service. He was presented with the Western New York Regional Office’s Leadership Award at a ceremony attended by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee.
“If you are a Buffalo teacher, you know that Phil Rumore always has your back,” Magee said. “For the better part of four decades, Phil has been a lion in representing the interests of Buffalo’s teachers while, at the same time, giving voice to the needs of Buffalo’s children who too often have been forgotten by those in power.”
Since becoming president, Rumore, 73, has elevated the union from a little-known entity to a fierce political machine that uses its dollars and members to sway elections and influence policy.
While his critics blame these tactics for the problems in the Buffalo Public Schools – saying he defends the status quo – many teachers and supporters say he is just skilled at doing his job – defending members. He has repeatedly won re-election every two years, and in most cases has gone unchallenged.
Born in Queens, Rumore was an only child raised by his mother after his parents divorced. He did not meet his father until later in life.
He was accepted to SUNY Cortland, but didn’t have the money to attend. So after high school, he joined the Air Force and studied electronics. He ultimately went to Cortland for two years with assistance from the G.I. Bill, then finished his studies at the University at Buffalo.
Prior to his rise to the presidency, Rumore was a little-known special-education teacher who started working in the city schools as a means to clear his college debt. He started teaching at School 6 on the city’s East Side in 1968 and worked during the period when the school district was under a court order to desegregate. He taught for 13 years.
In 1981, he ran a well-orchestrated and professional campaign in a five-way race for president, clearly making an impression on those who cast ballots.
Since then, he has secured strong contracts that gave teachers raises along with other lucrative benefits, including fully covered health insurance. He has successfully fended off local and state policies that he felt denied teachers their rights, most recently filing a lawsuit against a new receivership law that threatens to place public schools in the hands of an outside entity.
Rumore also elevated the union’s political status by providing financial support and other resources to candidates running not only for school board, but for Buffalo Common Council, Erie County Legislature and state offices. Until recently, the union was regularly the top donor in Buffalo School Board races.
His demonstrations have included leading a walkout of a talk by the former state education commissioner and conducting a mock trial prosecuting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for denying New York students their right to an education.
He has organized pickets at the homes of former Regent Robert M. Bennett, as well as now-departing members of the Buffalo School Board majority.
He has led several illegal strikes, landing himself in jail in 2000. During his week behind bars, he taught classes to the other inmates. He was released early for good behavior.
Now, Rumore continues to advocate for resources for teachers.
“They’re the ones that deserve awards for what they do every day,” he said. “No one person accomplishes anything on their own. It’s when everyone pulls together that real progress is made.”