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Editorial: Costly Buffalo teachers pact creates parity risk

Now the aftermath. With the Buffalo School Board’s generous contract settlement with the teachers union, some Board members are sensibly worried that too little money remains to settle contracts with other unions that are bound to want similar consideration.

It’s just the reason the board needed to be careful in its negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation which, due in part to its own obstinacy, had operated for 12 years under an expired contract. The $98.8 million settlement with the teachers drained much of the district’s reserves, leaving only another $22 million to settle the other contracts.

That money will be needed to reach new deals with principals, teaching assistants, clerical staff and building engineers. All are working under expired contracts, the principals and other administrators since 2004. They will be salivating for a deal like the one given the teachers. As well they should.

Already, state legislators are promising to reach into the pockets of state taxpayers to make up the difference. Given Albany’s history, it will probably happen, perpetuating a cycle that has helped make New York the nation’s highest-taxed state.

That’s not to say Buffalo teachers didn’t deserve a good contract. Even given the circumstances – continuing step increases, summers off – they do important work that merits fair reward. But “fair” is the key.  To achieve that standard, a contract had to take into account the resources of the community and the needs of the bargaining partner. This contract fell short of both those standards while setting the bar for coming negotiations.

The consequence, as at-large Board Member Larry Quinn observed, could include increasing the size of classes, to the detriment of students. It could also undermine Superintendent Kriner Cash’s plan for a $40.5 million “New Education Bargain” in Buffalo.

With the enabling by state legislators, the district approved the teachers contract on the theory that Albany would fund any difference. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cautioned otherwise, but the deal was done, ignoring the resources of the city tax base.

It’s true that every district benefits from state aid to education, but few are funded to the extent that Buffalo is. The state pays about 83 percent of the district’s $803 million budget. In the end, bargainers just assumed state taxpayers would pay more, if not for this contract, then for the others.

That has been the Buffalo story for decades. Until the state imposed a control board on the City of Buffalo, the municipality operated as though Albany would continually send more money – which it did, often in mid-year. It’s a window on the state’s history of excessive spending.

With oversight and self-discipline, the city outgrew that habit. Like all the state’s cities, it gets help from Albany, but it no longer budgets – or settles contracts – with the expectation that the state will automatically make up for any and all shortfalls.

The teachers contract, as this page has previously noted, also did too little to meet the district’s needs to regain management rights that had been bargained away. In particular the district needed the ability to assign teachers to schools that most need their talents. It’s a key part of improving education in the city.

Of course, no side gets everything it wants in any negotiation, so it’s not a disaster that the district agreed to a contract without running the slate. But it gave more than it could afford for what it did get and now it seems likely to pay the price.

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