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Viewpoints: It's about power, not kids, for Rumore and the BTF

Second of five parts

By Larry Quinn

I have seen so many awe-inspiring Buffalo teachers during the last five years. They are easy to spot. Their passion for children gives them away.

You can find them in the evening driving kids to after-school events. Or at home where they offer homeless kids a place to sleep. You can see them in coffee shops surrounded by kids filling out job applications. And at times you can see them with lingering marks of injury sustained protecting students from impromptu violence.

They deserve our respect and support as dedicated professionals. And they also deserve compensation commensurate with their effort and accomplishment.

The school district, the state and the teachers union fail teachers on both counts.

There are no rewards for a job well-done. Because of the hybrid system of civil service and state law, coupled with the terms of a collectively bargained agreement, a teacher’s classroom performance has no effect on promotions or increased compensation. The only thing that matters is how long you’ve been on the job. You stay alive, you get increased pay. The breathing bonus.

On the other hand where there are no rewards, there is also no punishment.

A teacher earns tenure after two years of service. Once there is tenure, it is literally impossible to remove a teacher from the classroom. The procedure for firing a teacher, no matter the offense, takes anywhere from two to five years. Teachers on leave pending formal hearing known as 3020-a receive full pay and benefits. As absurd as it sounds, the district recently paid a teacher a full salary and benefits for years while the teacher served time in an out-of-state penitentiary.

State law and the Buffalo Teachers Federation contract are rife with procedures and stipulations that tie management’s hands and ultimately lead to a bad classroom experience for teachers and students. Teaching assignments are based on seniority, not qualifications. Unused sick time goes into a sick-day bank doled out by the teachers union. The list goes on and on. There isn’t enough space to catalogue all of them in this article.

So what about Phil?

The School Board settled the teachers contract three years ago. Upon ratification, Phil Rumore, the 38-year leader of the BTF, proclaimed “Now, perhaps, we can start talking about kids rather than contracts.”
Multiple lawsuits, 600 grievances and three years later, the district recently began negotiations with the BTF for a contract extension. Predictably, Rumore walked out midway through the first session.

Rumore’s reign has coincided with the decline of the Buffalo Public Schools. Even the dullest among us can make the connection.

Rumore plays an active role in every school board race. I have seen his downstate troops from the Working Families Party walking the streets with petitions and hand cards. Although he is careful to hide his involvement in actual campaign funding, an expensive series of color brochures was mailed all over Buffalo last election with the return address of his close ally, the Western New York Area Labor Federation. Interestingly, Mike Deely of New York State United Teachers sits on the executive committee of this organization.

State education law prohibits third-party political action and requires full disclosure of all cash and in-kind services. To the best of my knowledge, none of the candidates disclosed the in-kind contribution of the Working Families Party or the cash from Western New York Labor. BTF also funds many community organizations that directly participate in school board races and other political activities. All of this is funded with the hard-earned money of teachers. You won’t see those contributions reported anywhere, either. I personally believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. Rumore just smiles for the cameras with his “Who me?” look and says “It’s all about the kids.”

I often ask, “What do Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan have in common?” The answer is they can’t coach basketball in Buffalo schools. In fact, teachers with tenure and seniority have a preferential claim over coaching assignments in all city schools. Qualifications don’t matter.

Even the Friends of Phil on the board were in favor of removing the coaching seniority provisions of the contract. Although Superintendent Kriner Cash didn’t hold firm on this point or other management prerogative issues, Rumore did make a concession to form a committee to explore the problem.

After working together for almost two years, the committee of teachers and board representatives unanimously agreed to a plan to provide the best qualified coaching for our student athletes. Finally, it was “all about the kids.”

Well, not so fast.

In classic Phil fashion, he advised Cash after the committee report that he needed BTF executive committee approval for implementation. Since the athletic committee was created by Rumore, Cash assumed its approval would be pro forma. After all, the members of the BTF executive committee – aka “the bobble heads” – are appointed by Rumore.

To nobody’s surprise but the superintendent’s, the bobble heads turned it down. And Phil pleaded the “Who, me?” defense yet again.

It ought to be clear by now our city schools need major changes. If it’s ever going to be “about the kids,” Albany needs to drastically amend state education law. And we all need at least one sorely overdue retirement.

Next Sunday: Gaps in education. Larry Quinn is an at-large member of the Buffalo School Board. He is not running for re-election.

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