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It's that time again: Buffalo schools, teachers head back to bargaining table

It may seem like only yesterday when the Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Teachers Federation resolved their 12-year stalemate and reached a new contract.

But that was in 2016 – more than two years ago – and that three-year deal will expire at the end of June.

That means the two sides – which have a long and tumultuous history when it comes to negotiations – will head back to the bargaining table, as soon as this month.

Neither has spoken publicly about its agenda for the negotiations and they have yet to meet formally to exchange proposals. But the return to contract talks does raise questions about what’s in store this time around.

Here are five:

1. It’s not going to take another 12 years to reach a new deal, is it?

A: It’s not unusual for contract talks to drag out, but the 12 years it took to settle the last teacher pact was the longest stretch in recent memory.

Remember, that was in part because the city’s control board enacted a wage freeze just months before the prior teacher contract expired in 2004. A challenge from unions lingered in the courts for years, and the issue was not resolved until 2013 when a federal judge ruled that not only was the three-year freeze justified, but the district did not need to give teachers credit on the pay scale for the years the freeze was in place.

This time, BTF President Philip Rumore is coming in with a much more optimistic tone.

“Our goal is to have the contract in place for the teachers to ratify before the end of the school year,” Rumore said.

Six other unions with expired contracts in the Buffalo school district are looking for new contracts like the one the teachers received. But is there money to pay for them? (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

2. What is the teachers union going to ask for?

A: There's the issue of a pay raise, of course. Last time around, teachers got a 10 percent pay hike the first year, to make up for all of the years without a new deal, and 2 percent each of the following two years.

But shortening the length of time it takes Buffalo teachers to reach their maximum salary – 27 years – was one of the issues left on the table during the last round of negotiations. Keep an eye on that. The union also has mentioned better prescription coverage.

As far as workplace conditions go, Rumore said teachers have continued to signal their concerns about class sizes, the need for basic classroom materials and the layering on of teacher duties. Another issue is school safety, more specifically how administrators are handling – or not handling – disruptive student behavior.

3. What concessions are the district looking for?

A: The school district is holding its cards close, and district administrators declined to comment because they haven't talked negotiation strategy yet with the Board of Education.

But in general, expect the district to seek more flexibility from the new teacher contract. The last time, the district got rid of the controversial cosmetic surgery rider and – for the first time ever – got teachers to pay toward their health insurance, so it's a safe bet the district will continue to chip away at the huge cost of health care during negotiations.

4. How is the school district going to pay for a new contract?

A: That was a big point of contention when the last contract was approved, as critics warned the district couldn't afford it.

School district officials point to last year's surplus as evidence the school system is not only managing the cost of the current contract but also has been able to settle pacts with four of its other unions. Still, budget deficits loom – a $17.5 million shortfall was projected for this year – and the district is trying to wean itself from relying on reserves.

As in the past, look for the union and district officials to lobby the local delegation of the State Legislature for help footing the bill.

“The key for us to settle this is going to be working with the State Legislature to get sufficiently increased funding for the school district,” Rumore said.

5: What's the sense from the School Board?

A: Glad you asked.

All nine seats on the board are up this year, so if the two sides don’t reach an agreement before the end of the school year – like the union is hoping – it would be up to a new board to approve a contract.

In 2016, the local union, along with New York State United Teachers, funneled thousands of dollars and other resources into the School Board races in an effort to flip the majority on the board, backing candidates who seemed willing to resolve the decades-long contract dispute.

It worked.

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