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Editorial: Buffalo teachers must give some ground if they want higher pay

Two thoughts on the soon-to-start negotiations between the Buffalo Public School District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation:

• Teachers shouldn’t get raises.

• If they get raises anyway, they must be in exchange for contract changes proven essential to transforming urban schools, specifically including the ability to assign teachers to the schools where they can do the most good.

Teachers, of course, deserve the respect of the community. They do critical work that deserves to be well-compensated. And that’s the point: Teachers in New York already are well-compensated.
The current three-year deal – signed 12 years after its predecessor expired – spent more than the district could afford. While anyone might be relieved that a contract was finally approved – a dozen years is a long time to go without a deal in place – its terms cost more than taxpayers, City Hall and the State Capitol were willing to cough up. Superintendent Kriner Cash had to scrounge for the money to meet its fiscal demands. That can’t happen again.

Negotiators also need to keep in mind the funding needed to continue implementing Cash’s New Education Bargain, which is slowly but surely producing results. Graduation rates are rising while the number of schools threatened with outside takeover has declined, falling to three schools this year from 25 just three years ago.

The teachers union has in the past argued that Buffalo teachers make less than peers in the Erie County suburbs. But there are compensating factors, including the stranglehold that the union has on teacher assignments. What is more, even without a contractual raise, most teachers will continue to qualify for step increases. Their incomes will go up, regardless.

A significant influence on the budget will be the composition of the School Board which, in recent years, has been dominated by members backed by the teachers union. To a great extent, that’s why a contract was finally approved in 2016 and also why it gave so much to teachers.

No one should have a problem with a board that includes members who are sympathetic to teachers; they have as much right to representation as anyone and have a clear stake in the outcomes. But it’s a problem when a board tilts too far in any direction and, in this case, forgets the stake of other players, including taxpayers and, most importantly, students.

That’s just one of the reasons this year’s Buffalo School Board election will be critical. Once every 15 years, all nine school board seats come up for election. This is one of them.

Following May’s election, the board will be different, since some members aren’t standing for re-election. (Sadly, that includes Lawrence Quinn, who is passionate about education and insistent on smart management.) The makeup of the new board will directly influence the tenor of negotiations – they should be adversarial but not hostile – and the contract they eventually produce.

Philip Rumore, president of the teachers union, said he would like to see a new contract ready for ratification before the end of the school year. That would be nice, but history suggests meeting that speedy timeline would require a vastly more flexible union or an excessively pliable school board.

There is reason to worry this could be expensive.

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