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Buffalo teachers growing frustrated with both sides at negotiating table

The contract showdown between the Buffalo Public Schools and its teachers union has been a long time coming.

Perhaps surprising is that teachers are frustrated with those on both sides of the bargaining table, feeling caught time and again in the middle of what has become an epic battle shaped by politics, ideology and personalities.

They feel many people in the community blame them for the district’s problems, while at the same time they are demoralized by dysfunction in the district. Add in the fact that their pay lags behind peers in the suburbs, which for some does not make up for the fact they receive fully covered health insurance.

And the contract dispute has played out at a time they feel stressed by heightened oversight at all levels from the Board of Education to the federal government.

“I was a student here. I’m a lifelong resident of the city,” said Joe Marciniak, a teacher at McKinley Vocational High School. “I’m here because I’m invested in the City of Buffalo and the students. I’m very disappointed in the fact that I feel we’re not valued commensurate with our loyalty to the district.”

“Angry,” said Janine Williams, a South Park High School math teacher describing the mood of the city’s roughly 3,600 teachers. “It is not pretty with teachers.”

That’s the backdrop as district negotiators and union leaders head back to the bargaining table Friday after negotiations broke down last week. Both sides are feeling pressure to reach a deal soon.

But perhaps no one feels the stress of the latest turn as much as the city’s teachers, who not only face uncertain work terms but penalties if the union decides to strike.

“It’s taking a toll on morale for us as a whole,” said Alicia Proctor-Szilagyi, a social studies teacher at Hutchinson Central Technical High School. “A lot of us love what we do. We wouldn’t be doing it so long if we didn’t. But this is grinding us down.”

What’s at stake

At the heart of the negotiations is compensation. The union is focused on salaries while the district says health insurance and other benefits are earnings, too.

The union wants bigger paychecks for teachers to make up for the 12 years they went without a pay bump – although most teachers did receive annual step increases – but the district says it can’t afford the sum the union proposes.

Added to the challenge is balancing the interests of teachers at different points of their careers. Many senior teachers are looking at how the new contract will affect their pensions and health care in retirement, while some newer ones would prefer money in their pocket.

“If you’re a brand-new teacher and you’re coming in at step one, that is not a lot of money,” said Susan Webster, who retired last year from Southside Elementary School, but still stands to get retroactive pay under a new contract. “You’re looking at the day to day. Can I afford rent, do I have kids. You’re not thinking about retirement.”

The district is willing to give teachers a 10 percent raise and a bonus to make up for the time working under an expired contract. But in exchange, the district wants teachers to pay part of their health insurance coverage and to work a longer school day and year.

Many teachers say they do not expect to get as much of a pay hike as Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore is seeking, but they also say they don’t want to come up worse than they are now.

Also part of the negotiations is the length of the school day.

The district wants to increase the length of the school day by 10 percent. Teachers say that offsets the 10 percent raise it put on the table. If the district were to extend the school day at some schools under the state’s receivership law, it would have to compensate teachers at their regular hourly rate.

The district also wants teachers to contribute to their health insurance costs. But that expense would cancel out any additional compensation, teachers say.

“I’m realistic,” Proctor-Szilagyi said. “I know we’re going to have to pay for health care. But if we’re going to be paying for that, and we’re going to be putting in the extra hours and the extra days, I want to be compensated fairly.”

The district points to the fact that teachers don’t work as long a day as their colleagues in other districts. Buffalo teachers point out that many of them put in extra time outside of the work day.

“I don’t know one teacher that works six hours and 50 minutes,” Webster said. “Every time it gets said it’s a slap in the face.”

Case in point: One day this week, Williams and colleague Kim Gable were still at South Park two hours after the final bell grading papers.

“I’m sitting right now with 30 something kids in a math class,” Williams said. “We stay after school with kids on our own time because you can’t get to every kid in the classroom.”

Teachers also take offense to the district’s comparisons to compensation in other districts. Those teachers don’t have to deal with the same classroom challenges such as students coming to school hungry, or who are distracted by crime and violence in their neighborhoods.

“We’re one of the poorest cities in the country,” Marciniak said. “You can’t tell me that doesn’t matter.”

Teachers at South Park, for example, are always chipping in their own money to help out students, whether it’s for prom tickets or yearbooks. Sometimes it’s for more basic needs like food or clothing.

A few years ago, Williams said, the teachers decided to forgo giving each other Christmas presents and instead used the money to buy gift cards for needy students.

They came up with $653.

And although those districts don’t enjoy the same health benefits as Buffalo teachers some have extra perks, like longevity bonuses or extra time in the day for planning. It’s difficult to compare contract terms across districts.

“There are so many different pieces to the puzzle,” Proctor-Szilagyi said. “It’s not as simple as a guy coming in and putting up a chart and saying we’re the highest paid in the region.”

To strike or not to strike

Rumore, the union president, has not publicly threatened a strike, but he also hasn’t ruled it out. He has said that if teachers do not have a contract to vote on by an Oct. 17 meeting they will have to explore their other options.

Some believe they only have one.

“No one really wants to strike, but for some that’s the only recourse,” Webster said.

District leaders, including Superintendent Kriner Cash, say they are making plans in case one does occur.

If they do strike, teachers would not only lose pay for the days they go on strike, but would be docked an additional day for each one out of the classroom.

“I don’t think it’s going to need to happen,” said Chris Ricci, a teacher at Burgard High School. “I think both sides are going to come to an agreement.”

But some feel they have no other option.

“We haven’t discussed it, but I think teachers are at the point where we want to be validated for our hard work and we’re going to do what we need to do,” Williams said.

“No one wants to lose two days for every one, but we’re not waiting,” she added. “We’re not going to wait another year. We’re not going to wait another two years. We’re done waiting.”

The teachers union scheduled a meeting for all teachers for Oct. 17 with expectations there will be a contract on the table.

Depending on how things play out at the bargaining table, emotions could be high at that meeting. Even those who may not really want to strike may be swayed by their colleagues.

“You go to these union meetings and people start speaking and everyone gets heated and before you know it, you’re on your feet yelling ‘Strike! Strike,’” Webster said.

Some aren’t optimistic things will be resolved otherwise at the bargaining table.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Proctor-Szilagyi said. “I’m not holding my breath for anything.”

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