At a time when teachers in Buffalo already have been working under an expired contract for more than a decade, a decision by new State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in November is sure to make a bad situation in the Queen City only worse.
Elia, citing the state's receivership law, granted Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash authorization to bypass the district's teachers' union contract and unilaterally impose changes in a handful of struggling city schools.
The move was quickly blasted by NYSUT, which characterized the decision as an attack on collective bargaining rights. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore, meanwhile, said the union would file a lawsuit challenging the decision.
Rumore, in letters sent to Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, presidents of NYSUT's national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, warned that if Elia's ruling is allowed to stand, it could very well have "disastrous national ramifications.
"If legislation is allowed to empower the commissioner of education to make changes to a collective bargaining agreement, why not a commissioner of police, mayor, fire commissioner or anyone for that matter being granted such power?" Rumore wrote. "NYSUT is providing excellent assistance; however, I wanted to make you aware of a precedent that could lead to the destruction of contracts in the continued effort to destroy unions."
If that wasn't enough, the Buffalo Board of Education in November made an end-run around the union's bargaining team by sending a letter directly to teachers detailing its proposed contract changes. Proposals included: Increasing the length of the school day to seven hours and 30 minutes, from six hours and 50 minutes. Increasing the number of work days to 189 from 186; allowing principals to transfer and reassign teachers without regard for seniority; and a double-digit percentage increase in health coverage contributions.
During the board's Nov. 18 meeting, hundreds of BTF members gathered outside City Hall to protest the ongoing contract impasse and Elia's decision.
"Teachers are an essential part of the solution, not the cause, of the challenges in high-needs schools," NYSUT said in a statement criticizing Elia's ruling. "The reality is this: The state should make good on the nearly $100 million in state aid it owes Buffalo's public schools as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, and listen to parents and teachers about what students need … NYSUT strongly supports teachers and parents in tackling the real causes of struggling schools, and will take any action needed to defend teacher and parent voice."