Philip Rumore, the union president, wants a new teacher contract within the first month of the school year.
The district is noncommittal about a timeline, and it’s unclear how newly elected, union-friendly school board members will influence the process.
A major wild card is Superintendent Kriner Cash, who may want work-rule changes, but also faces pressure from his bosses on the school board.
That sets the stage for the latest go-round of negotiations for a contract that expired more than a decade ago, and what happens in the coming weeks could be a key indicator of how Cash will operate with the new board.
Rumore, bolstered by a recent ruling that found the district guilty of conducting improper bargaining practices, plans to call an all-teacher meeting for early October.
“At that time, I’m sure the teachers will expect to have a contract to approve,” he said. “Everyone knows what the issues are. It’s a matter of willingness to resolve them.”
The district’s response was more guarded:
“The District considers it a priority to continue to negotiate with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, in good faith, a contract that is in the best interest of our students and teachers. As stated in the New Education Bargain with Students and Parents, we hope to create a new relationship with our teachers that recognizes them as professionals, pays them fairly and competitively, provides the support and professional development to enable them to do their best work, and reforms the working understanding between the District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation to ensure the best instruction for all of our children, every day, in every school, in every classroom, in every subject, for every year of school.”
The former school board majority drove a hard-line approach to bargaining, paying an outside attorney upward of $150,000 and demanding significant work rule changes. It wanted to increase the school day by 40 minutes, an increase in the number of teacher work days from 186 to 189, and requirement that teachers pay 12 percent of their health insurance premium. It also wanted a provision to allow principals to transfer and assign teachers based on educational needs, not seniority, a cornerstone in most labor contracts.
The new school board majority, however, appears more in line with the union’s agenda.
These talks are just the latest in what has been an ongoing saga to renew the contract that has spanned a time period marked by significant changes in the economy, education policy and district leadership, including a revolving door of superintendents and school board members with starkly different priorities. Added to that is the strength of the state’s Taylor Law and Triborough Amendment, which lock public employee contract terms in place until both sides can agree on new ones. Some have argued that gives the union, which now has strong benefits, little incentive to make concessions.
School officials have accused Rumore of stalling by canceling negotiating sessions, but the union president said he was waiting for a decision from the Public Employee Relations Board before returning to the table.
Earlier this month, the labor board found the district guilty of bad faith negotiations when it put new items on the table after the two sides had agreed to work with an outside fact-finder.
“Such actions expand, rather than narrow, the issues to be resolved and frustrate the impasse processes as well as efforts to reach agreement,” the ruling stated.
The ruling directed the district to withdraw the proposal it placed on the bargaining table last year and revert to an earlier one that Rumore has said would be “acceptable” to his members. That proposal called for paying teachers retroactive raises going back to the 2008-09 school year.
It also suggested giving the most senior teachers periodic longevity bonuses of up to $5,000.
Those changes would bring the maximum salary for a Buffalo teacher to about $97,000 and result in a roughly 12 percent raise for teachers. The proposal also called for teachers to pay a small amount toward their health insurance.
The employee board ruling, however, is non-binding and amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist, leaving the direction of talks uncertain.
The school district and union have a long and tumultuous history when it comes to negotiations, one that has regularly included outside mediators and occasionally resulted in illegal strikes that at least once landed Rumore in jail.
It has not been unusual for such talks to drag on for years. But the latest stretch is the longest delay in recent history, in part because of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority’s enactment of a wage freeze just months before the last teacher contract expired in July 2004.
A challenge from unions lingered in the court system for years, well after the freeze was lifted in 2007. The issue was not resolved until 2013 when a federal judge ruled not only was the freeze justified, but that the district did not need to give teachers credit on the pay scale for the years the freeze was enacted. Rumore has estimated the wage freeze and court ruling cost the typical teacher $81,805.
The verdict sent district and union leaders back to a bargaining table around which much had changed. They brought in a mediator who in August 2013 proposed a new salary scale that would give teachers $18,712 in retroactive pay and salary increases. In exchange, teachers would have to start paying 10 percent toward their health insurance premiums.
Rumore rejected it.
The following year the outside fact-finder issued a new proposal, which Rumore said would be acceptable, but the district rejected. The two parties then worked with a superconciliator – the last step outlined in state law to resolve a contract dispute – but were unable to come to an agreement.
The upcoming discussions could also influence what happens with a court case over the controversial cosmetic rider, which the former board majority tried to end by calling for the district to stop paying for procedures.
The union challenged that vote in court, and a state judge placed a temporary restraining order on the Buffalo School Board, withholding coverage.
Rumore has said that he is willing to give up the benefit, but if the contract is not resolved in the next few weeks the case will be heard by a court arbitrator.