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Judge recommends BTF be penalized for 'sick-out' at Buffalo School 59

Teachers at School 59 in Buffalo did participate in an illegal strike – something that hasn’t happened in almost 20 years – when they called in sick one day in March 2018, according to a ruling by an administrative law judge.

And that could end up costing the teachers union.

Joseph E. O’Donnell, the administrative law judge in the case, is recommending that the Buffalo Teachers Federation not be allowed to collect dues for up to two months from its members at the school in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

The decision ultimately rests with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board.

The school district last September docked the pay of 16 teachers from the school – also known as Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School – and accused them of calling in sick on March 14, 2018, in protest over concerns about school safety. In fact, more than half of the roughly 40 teachers at the school called in sick that day, but several were cleared by the district when they were able to substantiate their reasons.

The teachers union, meanwhile, denied it was a strike and argued that teachers were emotionally wrought and afraid after a violent altercation at the school the previous day. In that instance, police charged a woman and two girls for jumping a female student outside the grade 3 to 8 school, which is attached to the Buffalo Museum of Science. One of the females threatened to return and “blow up the school.”

But O’Donnell, after a four-day hearing last year, found there was substantial evidence showing that the BTF, primarily through the actions of the union delegate at the school, instigated a “concerted sick-out” or strike.

O’Donnell, in a 40-page decision released last week, pointed out that teachers immediately following the fight held a meeting, where they openly discussed safer working conditions. There, the union delegate at the school announced she was too upset to work and planned to call in sick the following day.

While the delegate told teachers she was “not telling anyone what to do,” she also “made no effort to try to discourage” teachers from calling off, according to the decision. Ten of the teachers called off either during that meeting or shortly after.

O’Donnell also acknowledged concerns about threats made against the school but felt there was not an “imminent” danger in this case, particularly after the female who made the threats was caught by police a half-hour after the incident.

BTF President Philip Rumore wasn’t sure how much the lost dues would cost the teachers union but insisted this wasn’t a strike. The BTF will challenge the ruling, he said.

“I thought it was probably one of the more callous and wrong decisions I've read in a long time,” Rumore said.

“We’re extremely pleased,” said Nathaniel J. Kuzma, general counsel for the school district. “We would do this 100 times over again if we had to, and if teachers and the union take action into their own hands.”

The last time the district took this type of formal action was in fall 2000.

In that case, though, nearly 4,000 teachers were informed that they violated the state’s civil service law by striking for two days over stalled contract negotiations. Rumore ended up serving eight days of a 15-day contempt-of-court jail term for violating the no-strike order.

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