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With contract settled, Rumore keeps firm grip on Buffalo schools

When Buffalo teachers finally settled their long-standing contract dispute with the school district last fall, some thought it was a signal that their battle-tested leader, Phil Rumore, would ride off into the sunset.

Rumore is about to turn 75 and has led the Buffalo Teachers Federation for more than 35 years.

But union elections have rolled around again and Rumore is still there. In fact, he is the only BTF presidential candidate.

So the man who has become one of the more influential – and controversial – figures in Buffalo’s education circles is assured at least another two years leading the powerful union of some 3,500 members.

“I just can’t see sitting around or traveling,” Rumore said of retirement. “It’s fun; it’s just not me.”

Rumore was first elected BTF president in 1981, which ties him with Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, as the longest-serving teachers union president in the state. He has outlasted 11 superintendents, and a case could be made Rumore has had as much influence on the district as any of them.

“There’s no question he’s in a very powerful position after all these years,” said Robert Bennett, former chancellor of the state Board of Regents, “and the way he does it is very strategic.”

'Snake' or schools advocate?

His opponents call him an obstructionist who has battled with everyone from the mayor on down, held back the school district from making needed reforms and who has threatened lawsuits and grievances at every turn – often following through successfully.

Critics point to examples like the time Rumore went to court to block the district from transferring 53 teachers out of low-performing schools or when he went to an arbitrator to prevent the district from switching to a single health insurance plan it promised would save $12 million without reducing benefits. In both cases, Rumore prevailed.

Former Superintendent James A. Williams once called Rumore a “snake in the grass” that he wanted to take out in the alley and kick his butt.

“His rigidness sometimes makes it difficult to work with him,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council and among those who have clashed with the union president.

“At one point, he picketed my house for God’s sake,” said Bennett, who is on opposite sides of Rumore on the charter school issue. “It was unnecessary, but he did it. It was almost humorous.”

But to his friends and allies, Rumore is a defender of public education, a relentless, hard-nosed negotiator who will go to great lengths – even jail during an illegal strike – for what he considers the best interests of teachers.

“He has made a name for himself,” said Andrew Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers. “When you talk about Phil, he’s dynamic and never one to back down. If you’re in a fight, you want Phil on your side.”

While his critics say he is well practiced at stonewalling the district, his supporters say he’s just as deft at making things happen.

Rumore, who has cultivated relationships with a network of local and state political leaders, has been instrumental over the years in lobbying for more state funding for Buffalo schools.

“Since the Great Recession, times have been difficult for schools and budgets,” Pallotta said. “If you’re going to be in a budget battle, you want to be with someone who can make points, who has relationships with legislators and can change minds and turn people toward public education.”

“We don’t necessarily always agree and most of the time we butt heads,” said Radford, president of the parent group, who has often said what's in the best interest of teachers is not necessarily in the best interest of students. “But I do have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done for the teachers of the city.”

Contract buys new term

During his re-election in 2015, Rumore faced a tough challenge from two opponents. More than half the teachers who voted cast ballots against him in the three-way race, underscoring the growing frustration of the rank and file after more than a decade without a new contract.

This election – six months after a new contract was approved – has been quieter, to the point that no one is even running against him.

“He settled our contract,” said Trisha Rosokoff, a Buffalo teacher active in the union. “I think that has a lot to do with it.”

“I think people did have issues with the new contract, but thought he deserved another term,” said teacher Marc Bruno, who challenged Rumore twice for BTF president.

Teachers got a 10 percent bump in pay the first year of the contract and 2 percent each of the following two years. The district, meanwhile, rid itself of the controversial cosmetic surgery rider and got teachers to chip in for their health insurance. The district also got teachers to add 25 minutes to their school day, starting next year.

“There were some parts of the contract I disagreed with and certain areas I thought we could do better,” Bruno said, “but at the end of the day he did get the job done and I felt it was time to back him 100 percent.”

Besides, Bruno said, Rumore’s many years of experience in the union are invaluable.

“I’m grateful he’s going to be around,” Rosokoff said.

Storm after the calm

A lifelong bachelor, Rumore enjoys the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, has a fascination with Einstein and the theory of relativity and said he is doing well after a health scare last year. He still has plenty he wants to get done as union president.

He recently talked about finding ways to lower class sizes, get parents more involved in the schools and collaborate more with the district – although that relationship has soured in recent days after a period of relative calm following the contract settlement.

These days, Rumore is back at it. He is threatening to take legal action against the school district for unilaterally changing the start times at three schools next year to save $4 million in transportation costs and help close a budget deficit.

And this past week, the union president took aim at the mayor’s office and the Common Council, calling the City of Buffalo’s funding of the school district “disgraceful.” He warned them the BTF  – a potent political force whose favored candidates now constitute a majority on the Buffalo School Board – could withhold its support during the next city election.

Rumore, meanwhile, will use this next term to put the pieces in place for when he eventually does leave – whenever that will be.

“I’m not looking so much to groom someone for the position as I am looking to provide an atmosphere for someone to emerge,” Rumore said. “To be president of an organization like this, I’d like someone to be here for a longer period of time so there’s continuity.”

A sense of humor would also serve the next union president well, he said.

“You have to have a sense of history and the person has to have the time. Whether someone with a family can do it or not, I don’t know,” Rumore said. “This is a commitment. It’s like teaching. You don’t go home at the end of the day and say, ‘I’m done.’ ”

Of course, while saying all of that, Rumore hasn’t ruled out running for president again two years from now.

Voting is being done online this year. It started May 8 and concludes next week – after which, Rumore will begin his 19th term.

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