Philip Rumore has been president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation longer than most of his members have taught in the classroom.
He is a well-known figure in education circles both locally and nationwide, earning a reputation as a tough union leader whose hard-nosed – and strategic – bargaining style has netted Buffalo teachers strong contracts.
Now, last month’s resolution of the union’s long-standing contract dispute leaves many wondering whether that negotiation will be his last.
Even before the contract was settled, some speculated Rumore would retire after reaching an agreement. His term will be up in May, and his last re-election bid brought fierce competition.
That leaves Rumore well aware that some people want him out of the job, if for no other reason than so they can step in and lead the state’s second-largest – and politically influential – teachers union.
“Everyone would like to see him leave on a high note,” said one local labor leader who didn’t want to alienate Rumore.
At the same time, most know Rumore is a man who dedicated his life to Buffalo teachers, and few believe he will be eager to give up a role he has shaped into the political force it is today.
“It sounds like he really wants to move forward with a partnership with the district,” said Larry Scott, co-chairman of Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. “It seems he’s still very involved and wanting to stay committed.”
Rumore, for his part, says he feels there is more work to be done and wants to spend the next few years grooming someone to take over when he does step aside. He also wants to work with Superintendent Kriner Cash on new initiatives that directly affect students and parents.
"I’d like to spend the next couple of years putting the pieces in place for when I do leave so that there’s continuity and people here," Rumore said.
"I have no intention at this stage of retiring," he added. "There's so much to do, it's still a challenge. And I'm still up for it."
In his more than three decades leading the Buffalo Teachers Federation, Rumore, 74, has become one of the most influential and controversial figures in the city’s education landscape.
He has gone to great lengths – even jail during an illegal strike – to fight for teachers.
In his time on the job, the union president has turned the numbers in Buffalo’s teaching ranks into a political force, elevating the union’s role in local politics by offering financial support and manpower to those running for office. That included races outside of the School Board, such as City Council and the State Legislature.
Rumore also had a hand in founding the state’s Working Families Party, which created a union-backed third-party line for candidates.
His tenure makes him one of the longest-serving union presidents in the state, and for most of his roughly 35 years he has faced maybe a half-dozen challengers in the biennial union elections.
That changed last year when two opponents stepped forward in an attempt to unseat Rumore, their campaigns bolstered by looming frustration over the lack of a contract since 2004.
Although Rumore secured the majority of votes required to win, nearly half of the teachers who voted cast ballots against him, underscoring a strong feeling of dissatisfaction largely centered around the negotiations.
The stalemate would continue to dog him in the months after his 2015 re-election, and Rumore prepared to ramp up his efforts to get it settled – setting his eye on forcing a shift in control of the School Board.
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.
But in the weeks prior to the May 3 election, Rumore disappeared and missed some significant events, including a state union meeting in Rochester. His absence raised concerns among his members.
“I know Phil is entitled to privacy... but I also believe we should know who is acting as president during his absence,” one teacher wrote in an email to The Buffalo News, requesting anonymity to not alienate himself from the union. “I do wish him well but do not like getting the runaround from our leadership. Please consider looking into this as it is being kept pretty tight lipped within the inner circle of BTF.”
Rumore came back on the scene in time for the School Board election, which resulted in the ouster of two incumbents and a shift in control of the board.
That board turnover set the stage for him to make other significant moves in the ensuing months that would bring an end to the contract conflict.
Prior to the start of the school year, Rumore went public with his intention of having a new agreement shortly after classes resumed. 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. If not, he said, teachers would have to explore other options.
Many interpreted that to mean a strike, and whether or not Rumore was bluffing, the move seemed significant enough to shake district officials, who in going public with their own proposals noted they were preparing in the event he did initiate one.
It threatened to be a public relations nightmare for the district, and many believed it would sway any uncertain board members to pressure Cash to come up with an agreement teachers would ratify.
Cash stepped in and the two had an agreement by the deadline.
By and large, most consider the final deal a significant win for teachers, bumping the maximum pay most teachers could earn up to about $97,000 and in turn bolstering pension benefits for those close to retirement. They also avoided most of the work rule changes the district sought, including allowing principals more flexibility in hiring.
And most insiders say it was Rumore's maneuvering that drove the final outcome.
Many have speculated Rumore was waiting for a contract deal before stepping aside, and now those questions are once again circulating.
“No one really knows what he’s going to do,” said Keith Hughes, who ran on one of the slates challenging Rumore in 2015. “My gut though tells me it’s his time. I think that’s the general feeling. He got his contract and he can go off on a high note.”
On one hand, Rumore’s term will be up in May, and it’s likely he will once again face challengers. Given the close contest last time, should his counter forces mobilize – as opposed to splitting the vote as they did last time – he could be in for a tough battle.
And it’s not clear whether the contract resolution would help or hurt him. While teachers, by and large, say they are happy the issue was settled, some were not thrilled with the terms, or the secretive manner in which it was brought before them. Rumore refused to release the deal to teachers until they showed up at the meeting during which they would vote on it, giving them no time to study it beforehand.
“There are a lot of people upset about the process,” said Marc Bruno, who challenged Rumore for the presidency in 2015. “It was rushed through and this feeling that if we didn’t accept it the board will pull it away. I almost think it’s unethical to make people make a decision like that. People just didn’t know.”
Other criticism came from teachers in the middle of their careers, who felt the final deal was most lucrative to those nearing retirement while providing them fewer benefits. Retirees and senior teachers have long been Rumore's strongest support base.
If Rumore does step aside, the next question is who might replace him. Among those names circulating are BTF Treasurer Rebecca Pordum, who became more visible during Rumore’s absence before the election, and its Secretary Kevin Gibson, who actually ran on one of the slate’s challenging Rumore in the last election. Gibson was the only member of his slate who ultimately won a leadership post.
As some note, though, Rumore does not appear ready to walk away soon. He talks about working with Cash to develop a program that would encourage Buffalo students to enter the teaching profession.
He also talks about grooming his own replacement, which seems to indicate he will run again, perhaps with a new leadership team that would be poised to rise in the future.
“What I want to do is spend more time on education instead of fighting over a contract,” he said. “My goal at least is I want to work toward that. Instead of worrying about tests, worry about making sure we are working with families.”