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Teachers win City Honors dispute – but district says not this year

The months-long labor dispute over school aides, teacher transfers and "non-teaching" duties at City Honors School is alive and well. In fact, it has gotten even murkier.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation declared a victory Monday when an arbitrator handed down a ruling that told the school district to rescind its decision to transfer teachers out of City Honors and return them to the school.

But don't expect that to happen.

The arbitrator's decision is essentially moot because it was for the 2017-18 school year, district officials said. The transfers weren’t made until over the summer, for the start of the current school year.

"It’s a new school year and the cuts for 2017-18 never happened," said Nathaniel J. Kuzma, general counsel for the Buffalo Public Schools. "The district asserts it’s in compliance with the arbitrator’s award and there are no affirmative steps that need to be taken."

BTF President Philip Rumore said that didn’t make sense.

“If they were found guilty then of reprisal and hurting the education of kids, they’re doing the same thing now,” Rumore said. “We will sue to have this enforced.”

The controversy appeared dead when a State Supreme Court judge in July agreed to lift a temporary restraining order, paving the way for the school district to transfer several teachers out of City Honors over the summer.

But the arbitrator – ruling on a grievance filed by the union – added a new wrinkle when he decided that the transfers first proposed in February were in violation of the district’s contract with the union. Not only were the transfers in retaliation against the teachers, they harmed the education at City Honors, he said.

"I find that the district has failed to establish that the elimination of 5.5 positions was not meant to penalize the BTF," arbitrator Timothy S. Taylor said in his 32-page decision.

Rumore called it a win for the teachers.

"The district has once again shown its vindictiveness against its dedicated and hardworking teachers, and in doing so, has harmed the education of our students," Rumore said. "This, and other recent actions, indicated the era of good will and statements of support for teachers is but a mask for attacks."

This latest labor dispute stems from a long-held practice at City Honors, where teachers were excused from non-teaching duties. No other school in the district has that arrangement.

The district traditionally hired aides for non-teaching duties at the school but eliminated the practice in 2010 and gave the duties to teachers.

The union filed a grievance, which was settled in 2016 by an arbitrator who sided with the BTF. That ruling was upheld in State Supreme Court when challenged by the school district.

In February, in order to comply with the court order, the district hired 16 aides to perform those non-teaching duties at City Honors and notified teachers it would eliminate 5.5 positions to afford the $571,000 in salaries and benefits for the aides.

The union was granted a restraining order, which temporarily prevented the teachers from being moved and disrupting things in the midst of last school year.

But State Supreme Court Justice Diane Y. Devlin in July paved the way for the teacher transfers by lifting the temporary restraining order and denying a BTF request to keep the situation at City Honors status quo.

In fact, Devlin earlier this month denied the union’s request for another order blocking teacher transfers, in a last-ditch effort by the BTF prior to school opening.

One way or another, though, this matter is headed back to court.

One of the issues raised in the arbitration ruling was that the district “failed to explore all of the options available to absorb the $571,000 cost of hiring 16 aides.” Any future elimination of teaching positions at City Honors, the arbitrator said, “must be narrowly tailored to meet the economic needs of the district.”

That was done during the School Board’s budget process, so changes could be made before to the start of the new school year, Kuzma said.

In the end, a total of five positions were eliminated this year at City Honors. That includes cutting a math teacher, two new positions that were slated for the upcoming year and reducing hours for an instructional coach, an orchestra teacher, a band teacher and an English language arts teacher.

The school district still expects to appeal the arbitrator’s ruling in State Supreme Court, because the board’s decision was not based on reprisal, but equity across the system, Kuzma said.

“It’s the district’s belief that the board has unfettered right to make budgetary decisions,” Kuzma said.

Rumore, meanwhile, said the union will file court action of its own if the district doesn’t comply with the arbitrator’s ruling during the current school year.

“Then, we’ll be in court again,” Rumore said, “and they’ll lose.”

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