Buffalo teachers hit the picket line

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Classes don’t start in the Buffalo Public Schools until Thursday, but teachers began walking the picket line on Tuesday.

It has been more than ten years since members of the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) have had a valid contract. Their last collective bargaining agreement expired on June 30, 2004.

“Enough is enough. We need a new contract and we want it now,” said BTF President Phil Rumore.

The union has not called for a strike. Tuesday morning’s demonstration, along with others planned for Wednesday morning outside individual school buildings before the teachers’ workday begins, was an informational picket only. The BTF is also planning a picket at City Hall on September 10, before the Board of Education meeting.

There’s a lot more at stake in the ongoing contract dispute between the BTF and the school district than salary and benefits. Rumore said class sizes are too big, and teachers aren’t getting the support they need.

“Buffalo teachers are $20,000 behind their colleagues in the surrounding districts and cities,” Rumore said. “Our class sizes are over 30; they should be lower. We don’t have enough support for our English language learners. Inflation’s gone up by 25 percent over the last ten years. And it’s time for the Board of Education to realize that, you know something? We have dedicated teachers here. It’s time to treat them the way that they should be treated.”

Outside Public School #6, Alice Lawrence and her coworkers marched with their signs Tuesday morning.

“In my mind, I think the board wants too much,” Lawrence, who has been teaching for over 25 years, said. “I do think they know how much work we are doing, how hard we work, but I just think the two sides aren’t able to come together.”

A court-appointed mediator wrote up a contract proposal in August 2013, but the district said Tuesday that “the mediator’s proposal did not resolve the outstanding issues.”

That proposal, for a contract that would have been valid from 2008-2016, included a total salary hike of nine percent for BTF employees, some of the raises being retroactive. It also would have required employees to pay ten percent of their health-care premiums, and would have switched to a single provider for employee health insurance plans – Blue Cross Blue Shield of WNY.

“We told them ten years ago that we’re willing to give up the cosmetic surgery rider,” Rumore said. “We’re willing to allow them to go to single carrier. It’s going to save them millions of dollars… at least $9 million or $10 million, easily.”

But from the union’s perspective, that last proposal failed to address changes at the classroom level and improvements in working conditions.

“I would love to see smaller class sizes. With all the new Common Core reading and math, I think we need smaller class sizes to get through to these kids,” Lawrence, the second grade teacher, said. “I would love to see more aides in the classroom to help us with the children. There’s a lot that we would like to do with the kids, but we just can’t do it when you have a class size of 30, 35 kids.”

“Teachers definitely work very hard,” Lawrence said. “Many of us spend more than eight hours a day in the building, coming in early, leaving late, working at home. We are working to the fullest, and we deserve a contract.”

This summer, a fact-finder was appointed by the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). Both the union and the district made their case to the fact-finder, during meetings on July 28 and in written statements that were submitted on August 25.

The fact-finder is expected to make some recommendations for a new contract in the next two to three weeks. But those recommendations are non-binding. It’s up to the school board and the union to negotiate terms of a new deal.

The union says the pickets won’t block anyone from entering any of the buildings or affect students going back to school.

“We’re just trying to get it out there right now,” Lawrence said. “We don’t want to disrupt the school day, we don’t want parents to think we are striking, and get the wrong information and not send their kids to school.”

The district said in a statement Tuesday that it “is awaiting a written determination from the fact finder before resuming the negotiation process.”

Rumore said the Board of Education has shown a “lack of will” to settle the contract.

“I think it’s important to know that the board has at least $60 million in its budget, to settle this contract,” Rumore said. “So there’s plenty of money to do it.”

A spokeswoman for the district said some of that money has been used to pay annual cosmetic rider costs, and just under $50 million remains. That money, according to the district, “is intended to cover the costs of settling the contract now and into the future years.”

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