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In Buffalo, a new school year with an old problem: No contract for teachers

A new school year opens in Buffalo on Friday, but behind the scenes there’s brewing frustration among teachers.

Their contract expired in June, but bargaining has yet to begin with the school district.

That has provoked the Buffalo Teachers Federation to declare an impasse and file improper practice charges with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board – all before negotiations even start.

News last month that top district administrators received raises averaging 5 percent has only fueled displeasure among teachers. In fact, the union scheduled a rally outside City Hall before the next Board of Education meeting Sept. 18.

“Even though we filed an improper practice against them, we still don’t have a date to start negotiations,” said Philip Rumore, the longtime BTF president. “Apparently, they can see fit and deem important to give their staff significant raises, but it looks like they’re giving the back of the hand to teachers.”

“What a terrible way to begin the school year, when it didn’t have to be,” Rumore said.

Nathaniel Kuzma, general counsel for the school district, called the union’s actions premature but said the district is looking at scheduling dates for bargaining after it discusses strategy with the Board of Education.

Kuzma also pointed out that it was Rumore who walked away from the table first when the two sides held a preliminary meeting to set up the ground rules for negotiations. That was in April.

“We have a lot of other priorities in this district that we have to address,” Kuzma said. “We’re prepared to bargain in good faith and engage in tough, spirited negotiations, but if you’re walking away from the table you’re going to end up sitting on the sidelines for awhile.”

In fact, Kuzma said he welcomes the union's declaring an impasse; that way, he said, a mediator will get involved and encourage professionalism and respect at the bargaining table.

“Unfortunately, he put himself and his members in a tough predicament by engaging in tactics we will not tolerate,” Kuzma said of the BTF president. “The tactics of the past will not be productive this time around.”

The last teacher contract in Buffalo was ratified in 2016, ending a 12-year stalemate between the district and union.

Rumore was counting on these negotiations going much more smoothly and for a while had kept the tentative Sept. 3 date he had booked at Kleinhans Music Hall in case there was a contract for teachers to meet and vote on.

But the two sides have a long, tumultuous history at the bargaining table and, once again, an early tone has been set for another round of tough negotiations.

The district has not discussed its proposals publicly.

“My guess is they’re going to push hard to increase the amount teachers pay for health care,” Rumore said.

As for the teachers union, Rumore said, issues on its radar include lower class sizes, more school counselors, shortening the time it takes teachers to reach maximum salary and pay raises commensurate with those received by top brass.

“I don’t begrudge them raises,” Rumore said of district administrators, “but they should be looking to do that for the teachers, too.”

How much do teachers make in your district?

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