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State won't pay to settle Buffalo teacher contract

Members of the local legislative delegation say they are willing to lobby for additional funding to settle the Buffalo teachers contract, but now the Cuomo administration says don't count on it.

In a letter to Buffalo school officials, state budget director Robert F. Mujica warns the district not to plan on the state kicking in additional funding beyond the district's annual allocation.

"The State is not involved in local labor contracts, it is not the arbiter or solver of local negotiations, and it absolutely cannot be called upon to finance local negotiations ..." Mujica writes. "While the State's support of Buffalo has been unwavering, the State will not be taking funds that are used to support the education of students statewide because the respective parties in Buffalo are not willing to compromise."

The state's letter comes in response to comments several local representatives made to The Buffalo News saying they would be willing to lobby for additional support for the district to settle the contract.

The issue could pit the governor - who has taken a hard line approach to education policy - against union-friendly members of the legislature, who have already been at odds with Cuomo on other education proposals, including teacher evaluations, school receivership and the Common Core Learning Standards. The union is a heavy contributor in state legislative races, and enjoys the support of Democratic members of the local delegation.

"Simply put, there will be no additional funding secured from the State for the purpose of settling the contract," the letter states.

Although the letter conveys that the state will not come up with any additional funding sources to help settle the contract, it does not rule out the possibility of additional aid through the standard formula used to allocate dollars.

With contract negotiations at a critical turning point, several members of the local delegation last week expressed they would be willing to step in to help settle the issue.

“I’m not independently able to make that kind of commitment, but I assure you that it’s important to the state to have a settled contract,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “If there are some areas where we could help, we should see if we can step in and do that.”

In earlier interviews, district officials said that proposals the Buffalo Teachers Federation has put on the table rely heavily on continued aid increases from the state.

Of course any additional aid from the state depends on whether local representatives can garner enough support from their colleagues in Albany, a seemingly tough sell given that the Buffalo Public Schools are already the most heavily subsidized in New York. The vast majority – 84 percent – of the district’s budget comes from the state, with city taxpayers contributing just 8 percent.

A few key factors could bolster their argument, though. Peoples-Stokes is a close ally of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who has backed her on other significant issues, including the appointment of her choice candidate to the state Board of Regents.

The state has also been giving the district increases in its annual allocation. Last year, for example, the district received an increase of 4. 6 percent.

Some suggest that the additional boost could come in the form of increased aid in next year's budget, leaving the district to use its reserves to cover additional contract-related expenses this year.

“You have to keep in mind that Buffalo gets the highest per pupil allocation from New York State and there’s every sign that will continue,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo. “New York State provides the lion’s share of this budget and I’m confident that will continue.”

Meanwhile, district and union leaders return to the bargaining table Tuesday to resume negotiations.

The negotiating restart followed a tumultuous few weeks in this latest round of bargaining.

After Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore walked away from the bargaining table last week, and then called masses of teachers to a rally at City Hall, Superintendent Kriner Cash presented the district’s proposal to the public.

Rumore has already scheduled a meeting for Oct. 17, when he said he expects to have an agreement for teachers to vote on. If not, he said, they will have to begin exploring other options.

With contract talks coming to an abrupt halt, and the threat of a teacher strike looming, Rumore and Cash met one-on-one last Tuesday in an attempt to reconcile differences. Both emerged and said they would resume talks on Friday, and district officials indicated they were optimistic they could reach a settlement.

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.

The district’s last proposal included a 10 percent pay hike upon ratification, a 3 percent increase the next year and a one-time bonus of between $2,000 and $7,000 based on seniority. The district also wants to modify the school day and year for added instructional time, and wants teachers to pay 10 percent of their health insurance.

The union has argued that teacher salaries lag behind other districts and that a 10 percent hike is unacceptable considering proposals for a longer day and school year. The union is agreeable to teachers paying a dollar amount toward their health insurance, but not a percentage and not the 10 percent proposed.

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.

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 that 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.

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