The judge involved in the labor dispute over teacher cuts at City Honors School has recused himself from the case.
State Supreme Court Justice John F. O'Donnell agreed Wednesday to remove himself at the request of Buffalo Public Schools and that the case be transferred to another court.
The Buffalo Teachers Federation asked O'Donnell to stop the district from transferring 5.5 teaching positions at City Honors so an arbitrator can step in to help resolve the labor dispute, but the district raised concerns that O'Donnell's daughter is sister-in-law to one of the teachers being cut from the school.
The judge in his written decision said the relationship has never been a secret and attorneys knew about it since their first appearance in court last year. O'Donnell said the familial ties would not mandate recusal, but he also didn't want it to be perceived as influencing his decision.
"It is important that the students, teachers, administrators, parents and community members impacted by decisions in this matter not be distracted by claims of impropriety or predisposition, however mistaken those may be," the judge wrote in his decision.
"Upon reflection, the familial relationship, although distant, could be perceived by some as possibly influencing a decision," he wrote.
There is still a temporary restraining order that prevents the transfer of the teachers pending a court decision on the union's request for an arbitrator.
"The District respects the court and its decision and will await the assignment of a different justice to hear this matter," said Nathaniel J. Kuzma, the district's general counsel.
The BTF had opposed the transfer of the case.
"The district insults all of our judges," said Philip Rumore, BTF president. "We may disagree with a decision and then appeal it – that's OK. But to impune their integrity is wrong – but not surprising from the district."
The district and union are at odds over non-teaching duties at City Honors.
The district wants teachers at City Honors to handle such responsibilities as monitoring lunch and study hall. Teachers at the school, long exempt from those duties, fought the district based on their prior agreement and won.
The district, under court orders, has 16 hired aides to perform those non-teaching duties at City Honors, but plans to cut 5.5 teaching positions to pay for them. Cuts would include a math teacher, English teacher, instructional coach and two music teachers as well as reducing hours for a guidance counselor.
The proposal to cut teachers midyear sparked outrage from parents and students at City Honors.
The Board of Education expressed frustration Wednesday during a work session.
"We've presented on behalf of the board a very, very sensible, rational, reasonable proposal to resolve this and the teachers haven’t been able to vote on it," Superintendent Kriner Cash said.
"So then how do we get to that place?" asked board member Hope Jay. "I feel like that’s what the parents and students need to hear – we want to get to that place."
The School Board questioned the need for 16 aides, a number calculated by administrators in the building and a source of contention with the union and parents.
City Honors Principal William Kresse said he too was originally surprised by the number but it's justified based on the size of the school, its layout and enrollment.
"The use of aides, I will be the first person to admit and acknowledge, is not an efficient use of staffing," Kresse told the board. "The main problem is you need people for a chunk of the day, a good half of the day you need a large volume of people."
"The remainder of the day you don't need them quite as much, but you still have to employ them," he said. "The biggest driver in this whole thing are the lunch periods."
Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman asked Kresse how the proposed cuts were decided and whether it was retribution against particular teachers.
"The positions that we arrived at were the positions that could be cut," Kresse said. "No one is more attached to music and the arts than me, but the reality is those credits are not needed for graduation."