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School board executive session on contract would violate open meetings law

Buffalo school officials plan to present the details of a new teacher contract to the school board in a closed private session when it meets at 4 p.m., a meeting that would violate the state's open meetings law.

Although the law does allow for an executive session to discuss contract negotiations, since the two sides have already reached an agreement presentation of such a deal should be public under the law.

"If they’re done negotiating, that exception doesn’t apply," said Robert J. Freeman, chairman of the state's Committee on Open Government.

Buffalo teachers and school board members will vote in a few hours on a new contract that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars and could affect work rules for teachers.

But district and union leaders are keeping the details of the tentative pact under wraps, something drawing criticism among those who will be expected to vote on it.

"I won't do anything that's not in an open session," said board member Larry Quinn. "Something this important and this expensive, the public absolutely has the right to know the details."

"I assume because of the embargoed information that they don't want to tell us until 4 p.m. there's going to be a lot of bad news," said board member Carl Paladino. "They're going to try to ram this thing through."

The secrecy is raising concerns about what might be in the agreement that district and union leaders don't want scrutinized prior to the meetings.

Superintendent Kriner Cash faces a school board that has been divided on how to best settle the deal. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore also has his critics, including hundreds of teachers who supported his opposition the last time he was up for re-election.

The agreement came following a late-night marathon negotiating session Sunday night that ended when union and district leaders emerged from City Hall saying they reached a tentative agreement to replace the contract that expired 12 years ago. The two parties, however, declined to release details before they are presented to school board members and teachers.

The school board is scheduled to meet about the contract at 4 p.m. Monday, two hours before teachers will gather at Kleinhans Music Hall to vote.

"Neither side got everything they wanted, but it's a fair deal," Rumore said after the meeting. "That's how you negotiate."

"I don’t think this agreement would have happened without the superintendent at the table," he added. "I don’t think I've complimented too many superintendents. But it wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t there."

It has been widely expected the deal will be favorable to teachers, awarding them the hefty financial compensation Rumore has pursued throughout negotiations. The union invested significant resources into May's school board election, which upset control of the board and lead to the installment of more union-friendly members.

The district had previously offered a 10 percent pay raise, along with additional increases in the coming years. It also placed on the table a one-time bonus to make up for time worked under the expired contract.

[Related: BTF sets Monday meeting in hopes of voting on new contract]

In exchange, the district wants a longer school day and year.

The district also said it wants teachers to pay a percentage of their health insurance premium, but Rumore has said he would only agree to a deal with a fixed dollar amount. He has also previously pushed back against proposed work rule changes, such as the elimination of seniority rules for teacher transfers.

A lingering question is how the new contract will be paid for. District officials have expressed concerns about locking themselves into recurring costs they might not be able to afford in the long run.

[Related: State won't pay to settle Buffalo teacher contract]

Members of the local legislative delegation have indicated they are willing to lobby for additional funding to help pay for the deal, but last week the Cuomo administration warned district officials not to count on extra money.

The last contract expired in July 2004, months after the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority enacted a wage freeze, which the union challenged in court. The freeze meant that teachers did not move up the salary ladder laid out in their contract.

That challenge lingered in the court system well after the freeze was lifted in 2007 and 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, an 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.

Since then, Superintendent Kriner Cash has taken over as superintendent and cut ties with a controversial attorney brought in by the former school board majority to take a hard line on negotiations. The school board election – in which the union invested significant resources – resulted in an upset of control on the board and an ideological shift among its members.

Meanwhile, both sides have faced mounting pressure from teachers and other political leaders to finalize a deal.

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