After resuming contract talks this week, the Buffalo school district and its teachers union have scheduled another bargaining session for Friday in hopes they can reach an agreement.
Both sides say they're close.
In fact, the Buffalo Board of Education has called a special meeting for 4 p.m. Monday to discuss the contract. That's also when the Buffalo Teachers Federation has scheduled its own meeting for all teachers in anticipation of voting on a new agreement.
"I believe we have significantly narrowed the gap and we're getting close," said BTF President Philip Rumore. "I have to give a lot of credit to the superintendent who has set a good atmosphere for the contract."
"I would concur with President Rumore that both parties have worked very hard to stay at the table and continue to try to work out a new contract for our teachers that is fair and competitive for our teachers and, at the same time, responsible for our district," said Superintendent Kriner Cash.
This more optimistic outlook followed a tumultuous few weeks of posturing by both sides during this latest round of bargaining, including a break down in negotiations, a large rally by teachers in Niagara Square, Cash presenting the district's proposal to the public and looming speculation of a strike. Rumore and Cash met one-on-one to reconcile differences on Oct. 4, when the two emerged from behind closed doors more optimistic they could reach a deal.
At the heart of the negotiations is compensation.
The union wants bigger paychecks for Buffalo teachers to catch them up to their peers in surrounding districts and make up for the 12 years they went without a pay bump – although most teachers did receive annual increases based on years of service.
In fact, Rumore made a presentation to the Board of Education on Wednesday comparing maximum teacher salaries in Buffalo with those from districts around Erie County.
Buffalo teachers who have a master's degree and are at the top "step" of the pay scale earn $74,657, he said.
Teachers with those same qualifications make $93,200 in Iroquois; $93,559 in Depew; $94,750 in Williamsville; $96,000 in Clarence; $98,000 in Sweet Home; and $99,619 in Lackawanna, according to figures from the New York State United Teachers. It also takes Buffalo teachers longer to reach their top salary step, the figures showed.
In contrast, the district is looking at total compensation for teachers, which includes fully-paid health insurance.
"What we have to do, in fairness to everybody, is take the total compensation we pay a teacher," Board Member Larry Quinn said after the union's presentation.“What is not taken into consideration is Buffalo teachers have life-time guaranteed health care that cost $70 million a year in this district.”
Quinn's remarks received groans and jeers from the teachers in the audience.
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 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.
In the midst of negotiations, members of the local legislative delegation say they are willing to lobby for additional state money to settle the teachers contract, but the Cuomo administration is saying not to count on that.
It's unclear how all this will pan out. Nonetheless, district officials agreed with Rumore that both sides are closer to an agreement.
"I feel we're as close as we've been in recent memory," said Nathaniel Kuzma, the district's deputy general counsel.
Even if an agreement is reached on Friday, details may not be made public until both sides have shared the information with the Board of Education and the union membership. Also unclear is when the School Board would vote on a new contract. Rumore has said he wants the board to approve a contract before he brings it to teachers on Monday.
"There is no guarantee that we're going to have an agreement by Friday," Kuzma said. "That's certainly the intention of the district, but there's no guarantee that will happen by Friday - or Monday."