Negotiations over a new Buffalo teachers contract are at a tipping point, and October looks like it may be the month when it all topples, with significant political and economic effects for the school district.
In the course of the last week, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore walked away from the bargaining table and then mobilized a crowd of hundreds of teachers – joined by top political and union leaders – to rally in Niagara Square.
Superintendent Kriner Cash responded by going public with the district’s latest offer, arguing that Buffalo teachers are compensated more than most of their suburban counterparts and that the union’s demands would drive the system into insolvency.
Neither side appears willing to back down.
Many believe a teachers’ strike is imminent, as mediation options are exhausted.
Rumore has called all teachers to a meeting on October 17 and said that if they do not have a contract to vote on at that time, they will be forced to explore other options.
At stake are the district’s budget and classroom programs.
If the district can successfully advance its proposal, teachers would face significant work rule changes, including the elimination of seniority preferences in assignment to schools. They would begin paying part of their health insurance premiums, lose personal-leave days and work more time in the classroom. They also could get a salary bump, which the district offered in exchange for those concessions.
“We hardly have any management rights in this district,” Cash said.
Rumore continues to push for a larger salary increase, netting teachers and retirees thousands of dollars to make up for the 12 years they’ve worked under an expired contract, although most teachers continued to get guaranteed annual raises called step increases.
School administrators say the district can not afford the latest proposal Rumore put on the table. It would cost $220 million over the next four years, they say.
Rumore says he would not publicly release his proposal because both parties agreed to keep bargaining confidential.
As the two sides battle it out, the people most affected – teachers, parents and students – find themselves caught in the middle.
“There’s a sense that people would like to see this settled so we can move on,” said Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. “Maybe I’m naïve in hoping... since it’s been 12 years. But I remain hopeful that reasonable minds will prevail.”
The key proposals on the table center on teacher pay, health insurance coverage and work rules for teachers. And a core disagreement is how the two sides measure what teachers are getting.
Rumore focuses on salary, noting that Buffalo teacher pay lags behind other suburban districts and that it takes them longer to earn the maximum pay. Rumore wants to beef up pay for teachers in the middle and at the end of their careers. That helps increase their state pensions.
“That person in the suburbs made that highest wage for ten years longer than a Buffalo teacher,” he said.
The district, however, factors in health insurance and additional retirement benefits, and is negotiating based on total compensation. Buffalo teachers do not pay any costs for their health care insurance, and retirees can get coverage for a nominal fee. They are the only teachers in the county who do not contribute toward their health care plans, with those in 15 other districts contributing at least 10 percent.
District leaders acknowledge that, at some experience levels, Buffalo teacher pay falls behind other districts, but argue their lifetime compensation is among the highest in Erie County.
The district puts the lifetime compensation of Buffalo teachers at $2.9 million, compared with an average of $2.3 million for suburban districts.
At the same time, city teachers work a shorter school day and school year, amounting to 390 fewer days over the course of a typical 30-year career.
Rumore has said he would be willing to negotiate an agreement in which teachers pay a dollar amount for their health insurance, but Cash has said the district needs a percentage contribution for it to be sustainable in the long run.
“It’s critical for the district that we get that percentage amount,” Cash said.
The current impasse between the two parties is nothing new in what have become tense negotiations for a new teacher contract.
What’s different this time around is the politics of the district and the school board, which includes three new members elected with strong support from the teachers union.
Although board members do not negotiate the contract, they approve it. So how those board members stand on the contract could be the deciding factor, especially if teachers go on strike and there is heightened pressure to reach a deal.
“The pressure is really that the union made an investment in those board members and they’re going to want a return on that investment,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “Rumore knows the politics are in his favor. He’s probably never going to get an opportunity like this.”
Cash said this week that all nine board members support his current offer, but he acknowledged that could change if they face pressure from parents, teachers and the public.
“I think the end game is you take that board majority, they drive out Cash and bring in someone else to make a deal,” Radford said. “I see this ending in a strong power move by the union to flex its muscle.”
At the same time, the school system in recent years has garnered interest from a number of outside forces that will apply their own pressure on Cash and the board.
“Honestly, it’s very unsettling to me as a Buffalo parent,” Scott said. “We’re seeing momentum moving in the right direction. I’m unsettled that this is becoming a distraction from the work being done in the district.”