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Four key moments resolved teacher contract impasse

A rapid succession of key moments and maneuvers culminated last week in a relatively quick resolution to the 12-year Buffalo teachers contract stalemate. Both sides had an interest in settling, but four key moments paved the way to a deal that had been unattainable since 2004:

A critical election

After years of tense talks – driven largely by the former School Board majority’s hard-line approach to the contract – the May 3 board elections were as much about the teacher contract as about electing people to set the course of the district.

The races drew unprecedented involvement from non-education labor unions and Democratic Party leaders, all working to help elect candidates endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

The Buffalo union, along with its parent group New York State United Teachers, funneled thousands of dollars and other resources into the races, backing candidates who seemed willing to resolve the contract dispute. Most of its muscle went into flyers, mailers and rallies that garnered attention even outside of the city and that won the support of suburban teacher unions.

Their efforts worked, resulting in the ouster of two former board majority members. Although it remained unclear how the newcomers would fall politically, all seemed eager to come up with a new contract agreement.

That board turnover gave BTF President Philip Rumore a new chip when he returned to the bargaining table a few months later.

It also set the stage for him to make other significant moves in the ensuing months that would bring an end to the conflict.

Facing a deadline

With a new board in place, and an administrative ruling that found the district guilty of bad faith negotiations under the prior majority, Rumore made perhaps the most significant maneuver.

He went public with his intention of having a new agreement shortly after the start of the school year. He set an Oct. 17 deadline and made a show of calling all teachers to a meeting that day where he intended to present them with a new contract.

The two sides had yet to return to the bargaining table at that point, and district leaders cautioned that they did not plan to rush an agreement to meet Rumore’s deadline.

But as the weeks wore on, it became increasingly clear they were worried about it. Or, rather, they were worried about what could happen if they couldn’t come up with an agreement.

Rumore said that if teachers did not have a deal at the meeting, they would have to explore other options  --  which many interpreted to mean a strike.

A strike would be disruptive not only to the district, but to parents, students and teachers, who would also lose a hefty sum of pay as a penalty because striking is illegal in New York.

It threatened to be a public relations nightmare for the district, and many believed it would sway any uncertain board members to pressure Superintendent Kriner Cash to come up with an agreement teachers would ratify. Although the board does not play a direct role in negotiating contracts, it must approve them, and also has authority over the superintendent.

On the other side, teachers wanted a raise after 12 years and the union leader knew he'd have to face them when he runs for re-election in April.

That was the atmosphere as the two sides returned to the table  in September, and at first both sides seemed pleased with how things were progressing.

That changed three weeks before the scheduled BTF meeting, when Rumore walked out of negotiations,  upset that the district said it could not afford to pay teachers retroactive pay.

The next day he assembled thousands of teachers and supporters to rally in Niagara Square, right before a School Board meeting across the street in City Hall, to demand a new contract.

Cash steps in

The district’s initial response to the BTF power play was to go public with its proposal, presenting it at a School Board meeting and to the media. It was a strategy the district had used before, and one that had not been effective in reaching an agreement.

Within a few days, Cash changed course in a move that may have been the most significant step toward reaching a deal: He and Rumore met one on one in a somewhat last-ditch attempt to resolve their differences.

Cash already had become a key player in the talks. He took a seat at the negotiating table, directly involving himself and being available to make decisions on the spot. He also took a different tone into the talks, cutting ties with a controversial labor attorney brought in by the former School Board majority, which seemed unwilling to find middle ground on some issues.

Rumore credits Cash’s involvement with helping move the talks to a resolution.

By the time the two emerged from a late-night negotiating session Oct. 16,  they had an agreement.

Secret before the ballot

The two had a pact, but decided not to share it with board members or teachers until minutes before asking them to vote on it.

That set off a whirlwind of criticism from those on both sides, but may have been necessary to get the deal finalized.

Both Rumore and Cash knew they had to give up a little, and both  knew they might be criticized for giving up too much.

Had they released the agreement, teachers, board members and the public would have had more time to analyze it and find reason to criticize it, possibly jeopardizing its ratification.

As it was, two members of the board's old majority voted against the deal;  and even as the BTF approved it, some teachers grumbled that the pay hike was too small for the concessions they made on health care and their work schedule.

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