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New board faces same vexing contract impasse with union that helped elect it

The Buffalo School Board will have a new look Friday.

Following a tumultuous May election that changed the makeup of the fractious board, three incumbents kept their seats, and three newcomers – Hope R. Jay, Jennifer L. Mecozzi and Paulette Woods – will be installed.

But what difference will having a new, nine-member board really make?

Look for it to try to settle the long-awaited teachers contract – even though boards before it have tried and failed.

Look for it to press ahead with the superintendent’s reform agenda – smaller class sizes, innovative high schools and extended days – even though members don’t know how they’ll pay for it all.

And maybe – if you look closely – you’ll see a new board that shows less rancor and more civility, even though most of the key players won’t change.

Most obvious will be new leadership, with former President James L. Sampson losing his seat to Mecozzi and the former minority bloc now assuming control. The new majority bloc includes the three new members, Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, Sharon M. Belton-Cottman and Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, while Larry Quinn, Carl A. Paladino and Patricia Pierce will find themselves in the minority.

Several members point to at-large member Nevergold as the likely new president, a post she held before the now-defunct majority took over in 2014. One sign of whether the new board will be less divided than the old one could be whether the new majority taps a member of the minority bloc for one the two vice president posts.

But look beyond the leadership musical chairs and you’ll also see a new majority placed in their seats with the help of the teachers union – the same union it will try to reach a contract settlement with after 12 years of fruitless negotiations by previous boards.

What can the new board do – or offer – that the old board didn’t to win over a union that has found little reason to give up the benefits it still enjoys under its expired contract?

Can we talk?

Mecozzi, the new West District member, calls contract negotiations the “huge elephant in the room,” while North District newcomer Jay says there “has to be an earnest give and take” to reach an agreement.

But beyond the boilerplate, the new members aren’t saying what they plan to do differently or offering any specifics. The one exception was Woods, the new Central District member, who declined to comment this week, saying she was not a board member yet. But when running for office, she proposed teachers pay higher co-pays and 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, similar to what teachers in other municipal unions pay.

Almost all of those elected in May also want to get rid of the cosmetic surgery rider in the teachers contract, something the old board tried to do unilaterally before being stopped this week by the courts. The bad feelings generated by that attempt could actually make negotiations harder now.

That was typical of the aggressive approach favored by the old majority, which hired an outside lawyer and a public relations firm to bypass union leadership and take its case directly to the teachers and the public. It wanted a longer school day and year and more power for principals to ignore seniority when assigning teachers, while offering teachers a 10 percent raise plus another 1 percent a year for three years.

The proposal went nowhere.

Members of the new majority, on the other hand, have put more emphasis on increasing teacher salaries to levels more comparable to the suburbs and talked less about the work rule changes at the heart of the old majority’s proposal.

The new approach is sure to be more to the liking of the Buffalo Teachers Federation as the two sides try to break the 12-year stalemate.

Still, Quinn, who helped craft the old board’s approach, does not sound optimistic.

“I don’t have a lot of hope in it, but I would like to see a progressive teachers contract,” said the at-large member. “Whether we are able to accomplish that remains to be seen.”

More timely budget

One noticeable difference will be a more timely approach to coming up with a budget – which may seem like inside baseball but can determine what students get in the classroom – and more pressure on City Hall to deal with issues around the schools.

Belton-Cottman and Paladino, who typically spar, agree on this point: The board needs to start working on the budget sooner in the year so it is not passed just three weeks before the July 1 start of the fiscal year, as happened this year.

“I think the budget that we finally passed was a budget by default,” Paladino said. “We found a lot of areas that need attention and we need to continue to watch. We’ve got to do that all year long.”

Belton-Cottman said she also plans to scrutinize budget issues early on as they relate to equity, which could make a difference in how resources are allocated.

“When I first came on the board in 2011, we saw there were formulas that did not provide equal access to the dollars,” she said. “You have years of more money spent in certain schools and less money being spent in other schools.”

That focus on equalizing resources, however, could cause clashes with board members protective of the district’s higher-performing and most sought-after schools if it means shifting resources around.

Belton-Cottman also pointed to issues like poverty and crime that are outside the district’s control but impact students.

“We have children afraid to walk the street,” she said, adding she will be “requiring more accountability from the city. We’re talking about a lot of things that do not necessarily fall completely on the shoulders of the Buffalo Public Schools.”

Also look for more focus on improving student attendance, an issue highlighted last year in a Buffalo News series that found chronic truancy in the city schools.

“We can work toward establishing a policy that is going to really address the problem and the underlying causes,” said Pierce, citing her experience as a police officer dealing with families. “I see the problem is directly related to trauma and family crisis ... So many of our families are faced with a multitude of issues. These are issues that cross into every zip code and into every ethnicity, race, combination of races, every culture.”

While revamping the budget process, the new board will press ahead with phasing in Superintendent Kriner Cash’s New Education Bargain turnaround plan.

In the 2016-17 budget adopted in June, $15 million was set aside to implement Phase 1, which calls for lowering class sizes in the early grades. Subsequent phases are due to be rolled out in the coming years. But rather than wait, Paladino says the district should start working on the second phase right away.

“The main thing is we want to implement kindergarten through (grade) three reduced class sizes; but then we need to get to the second phase .... as soon as possible,” Paladino said, referring to efforts to lower class sizes in other grades.

Harris-Tigg, who won re-election to the East District seat, pointed to one specific component of the turnaround plan: 18 “community schools” offering a wide array of services spread across the four quadrants of the city. Three will be rolled out this fall, and she will throw her support behind them to make sure they are successful.

“The one located in the East Side community zone, especially, but all of them,” she said.

A more civil board?

While Paladino is pushing Pierce for president because “she’s got the respect of everyone on the board,” Pierce looks across the board’s divide to mention Belton-Cottman because of her status as the senior member and her passion, which means “she stops at nothing to correct” a wrong.

But Belton-Cottman said Nevergold deserves the post, and most members who would comment see her as the most likely choice.

“Barbara is well-respected,” Belton-Cottman said. “Barbara won’t leave any stone unturned. She will make sure things are properly done.”

Nevergold would not comment until after Friday’s meeting.

One other question is whether the new board will exhibit less rancor and more civility, even though most of the key players won’t change. Quinn, Paladino and Pierce – once members of the majority bloc – now find themselves as the minority bloc.

Will there be more of the same clashes, in-fighting and dissension with the new board?

“I’m approaching it as sort of a clean sheet of paper,” Quinn said, adding it is inevitable that differences will arise.

“If you’re trying to do real reform, you’re going to run into differences of opinions, and I don’t think clashes or differences of opinions are bad,” he said.

Newcomers Jay, Mecozzi and Woods are expected to align more with Belton-Cottman, Harris-Tigg and Nevergold.

Or will they?

“Even though we have been put in the same bucket publicly – everyone gets along, six women, everyone has the same view – we have enough common sense to know not everyone agrees on everything all the time,” Mecozzi said.

“We know we’re going to agree to disagree if that happens,” she said. “We just don’t assume we’re all going to be on the same page. We have our own personalities.”

Along with Mecozzi, Jay said she wants to keep one of her campaign promises of less drama and more civility in the boardroom.

“I think we’re all intelligent, educated adults who should be able to work together,” Jay said. “I’m hopeful we can become a cohesive group that puts the needs of Buffalo students first.”

Pierce echoed those sentiments.

“I’m hoping we come together as a board more cohesively,” Pierce said. “Ultimately, as dysfunctional as people have labeled us for the past two years, when it came to the really important issues” – hiring Cash, redesigning high schools and hiring an attorney, who has since been fired, to negotiate a BTF contract – “we sat at the table and agreed unanimously.”