In the end, the agreement that resulted in a new teachers contract in Buffalo was, more or less, what it should have been. Both sides wanted more than they got and gave up more than they wanted to.
But if it’s imperfect, it’s also acceptable. It allows the district to focus on students – remember them? – while leaving some issues to be taken up again in three years, when this contract expires.
Much of the credit for this achievement should go to Superintendent Kriner Cash, whose influence was significant. Instead of merely delegating the work, he plunged into the task and helped hammer out the district’s first teachers contract in 12 years. He made a difference.
The contract passed in a 7-2 vote of the School Board, and for those who feared the new majority would simply give away the store, the deal comes as something of a relief. Its main contribution was a generous raise to teachers whose income growth was slowed by the failure to produce a new contract since 2004 and by the wage freeze imposed by the Buffalo control board just before the old contract expired.
Under terms of the deal, which members of the Buffalo Teachers Federation approved in a voice vote on Monday, teachers will get a bonus of $2,000 to $9,000, depending on seniority, as well as an immediate 10 percent raise and additional increases of 2 percent in each of the next two years. It’s a significant pay hike and a fair one, under the circumstances, including comparisons with other school districts.
To win it, teachers gave up fully paid health insurance. They will now pay a flat amount of money toward their health coverage. The amount starts at $500 for individual policies and $1,100 for family, and increases annually. The district had sought a payment based on a percentage, but agreed to the dollar figure because it produced a similar amount.
In addition, both the school year and school day will be lengthened. The year expands by two days, one of which will be without students, while the day becomes 25 minutes longer. The district had sought a 40-minute extension. This, though, is a good start that should help to better prepare Buffalo students for the rigors of life in the 21st century.
Teachers also give up the notorious elective cosmetic surgery rider, saving the district about $5 million. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore had pledged that the union would agree to drop the rider as part of an overall contract, and it did.
The critical concession that the district was unable to win was control over teacher assignments, which are now determined by seniority. That deprives administrators of the ability to place teachers where they would have the greatest impact. That would count as a defect in any school district, but is especially so in one where the graduation rate remains unacceptably low.
Yet, it is worth understanding that teachers were at one time subject to classroom assignment based on political or personal considerations. The seniority rule, despite its defects, dealt with that problem.
Still, this remains an important issue that should be on the table for the next contract. The district and union should look to hammer out a deal that gives administrators appropriate flexibility while restricting the opportunities for abuse. They should also be prepared to look again at health insurance and the length of the school day and year.
In a fair contract negotiation, no one gets everything he wants. That’s part of what makes it fair, and this contract fits that description. That does not, on its own, make it a terrific deal, but it is at least an acceptable one, in which both sides feel a pinch but get something in return.
Rumore had a hopeful response to the accord. “The biggest victory,” he said, “is that we have reached a contract. Now, perhaps, we can start talking about kids, rather than contracts.”
That’s called keeping the main thing the main thing. Plenty of work remains in the urgent task of improving the education of Buffalo’s children. If the contract helps with that, then it will be a success.