The Buffalo Common Council plays no role in how the Buffalo Public Schools operate. But that hasn't stopped the Council from weighing in on the district's ongoing student transportation crisis.
The Council has come out in favor of implementing a three-bell system at the beginning and end of the school day that the district and education activists say would solve a problem stemming from a shortage of bus drivers. Three different start times for Buffalo's K-8 schools – 7:30, 8:30 and 9:30 a.m., as opposed to the current 8 and 9 a.m. two-bell system – would allow bus drivers to complete two routes in the morning and two under a similar time setup in the afternoon.
Late last month, Councilmember Ulysees O. Wingo presented a proposal to the Council just hours after meeting with the Buffalo Education Equity Coalition, which has met with many public officials to describe the severity of the transportation problem. Wingo said he was acting urgently – through a late-filing that was not discussed in the Council's caucus the day prior – to amplify an "emergency" transportation problem affecting the families in the Masten District he represents.
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In a 10-minute presentation at the end of that meeting, Wingo explained his confidence in presenting a resolution that would give Superintendent Tonja M. Williams authority to implement the three-bell system separately from ongoing contract negotiations.
"What I do know is the BTF is not against the three-bell system, they're not against it," Wingo said. "And what I do know is that this is the resolution that the teachers and the administration and the federation, they all do agree that this would remedy this issue immediately should they be able to implement it immediately."
Wingo said Friday the stance of the teachers union was made clear to him from remarks made by Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, during a 2½-hour meeting at True Bethel Church Nov. 15. The Common Council resolution passed unanimously.
Buffalo teachers reject district's proposal to change school bell times to address bus driver shortage
Buffalo Schools' teachers have delivered a resounding "no" to the district's proposal to move to three bell times instead of two at the start and end of the school day.
In response to teachers' feedback from the resolution, Rumore sent a memo Thursday to the Common Council sharing the teachers' feelings of misrepresentation regarding the federation's support of three bell times. In the letter, Rumore cited teachers' questions regarding the district's memorandum of understanding presenting the bell times, the 87% vote against changing bell times, and then demanded corrective action from the Common Council.
"If you had bothered to check with us, you would have known that we did not support said legislation," the memo reads. "To say that we did, is a lie."
"I never agreed the three-bell system would solve the problem," Rumore added Friday, noting also that teachers were "furious" that city politicians would be involved in educational matters, especially those directly involved in contract negotiations.
Teachers have been working without a contract for three years. The two sides have been at an impasse for about two years, and they seem to agree on one thing: Barely any meaningful progress has been made in recent discussions.
Wingo reacted to the BTF's memo, accusing Rumore of changing the narrative.
"This is intimidation, this is bullying, and it's setting the worst kind of example for our children," Wingo said, later adding, "It's a shame that adults who have the power to make decisions that affect children's lives instead use children as collateral in contract negotiations."
In the three weeks since, two other Common Council members – Joel Feroleto and Christopher P. Scanlon – said they have also received angry calls from teachers and parents in their districts upset by the resolution. Had they known the feelings of these teachers and parents prior to voting on the resolution, the council members said Friday it would have changed their vote. It's uncertain if there would be enough changed votes in total to affect the resolution's passage.
"The nonbinding resolution was unanimously adopted and was represented to have the support of the BTF, teachers, and administration," said Feroleto, the Delaware District representative, in a statement. "I have since heard from the BTF, and many teachers and parents that do not support this."
Wingo said he has received compliments from his constituents about his bell-time resolution and just two complaints. "I'm fighting the fight they want me to fight," Wingo said.
If the council resolution is not binding on the district, why has this situation become so contentious? The council's support does carry weight in urging state political leaders to take action, said Samuel Radford III, leader of the Buffalo Education Equity Task Force.
The task force has raised awareness of school transportation problems and drummed up city support for the change – including backing by Mayor Byron Brown and Rep. Chris Jacobs, Radford said, with the end goal to have Gov. Kathy Hochul declare a state of emergency so Williams can implement a three-bell system without the need for an agreement in contract negotiations between the district and teachers.
The task force is hoping to convince Gov. Kathy Hochul to declare a state of emergency that would allow Superintendent Tonja M. Williams to implement a change in the district's bell system.
Radford's task force also met this past week with Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson, and unlike with the Common Council, his proposal advocating for the three-bell times solution did not pass during Thursday's session and instead was sent to committee for further discussion. Johnson knew that teachers did not support the proposal, and that the proposal tied into contract negotiations.
"The solution is just to urge the teachers union and the administration to come to some type of agreement," Johnson said, later adding, "I'm pro-teacher, I'm pro-union, but I'm pro-kids first," Johnson said.
At the Nov. 29 Council meeting when the resolution passed, Council president Darius Pridgen said it was important that Buffalo's politicians have perspective in educational matters. "I think that's the great thing," Pridgen said. "We don't have a vote, but we do have a voice."
News reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.
Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at email@example.com, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.