New contract remains elusive for Buffalo Schools, union

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Buffalo Schools leaders and the Buffalo Teachers Federation have been at an impasse since 2019. The two sides met six times in the last month, hoping to have a new contract to announce at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Despite the effort – which included back-to-back meetings earlier this week – there was no resolution.

Two topics block the path to agreement: retiree health insurance and the length of the school year. The former was a particularly thorny issue, discussed for more than an hour Wednesday at the school board meeting at School 3 on the D’Youville-Porter campus.

With their focus narrowed, Buffalo’s teachers and the school district are tantalizingly close to a new contract that could make Buffalo’s 3,677 educators among the highest paid in Western New York. But the district’s proposed increase in teacher salaries, which would push average annual pay from $72,000 to roughly $91,000, is contingent on removing the cost of retiree health insurance for new hires after Jan. 1, 2026.

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With negotiations at an impasse for a new collective bargaining agreement for teachers, Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore spoke in front of the Buffalo Board of Education Wednesday to explain that the union and the district have agreed on salaries — well, mostly — as his speech was met with slight disagreement by Buffalo’s chief negotiator, Nathaniel Kuzma, pictured in the foreground. The board meeting was held at School 3 near D’Youville University.

Ben Tsujimoto

Buffalo Schools’ general counsel and chief negotiator Nathaniel J. Kuzma said the most recent offer is the final coming from the district. There are no future meetings scheduled.

“We’re not that far off – but as they say, ‘So close, yet so far away,’ ” Kuzma said. “So we shall see.”

School districts across Western New York do not cover health insurance for retirees like Buffalo Schools, which offers a lifetime BlueCross BlueShield plan. Some area districts allow teachers to sell back unused sick days in return for pay toward health care, while others may cover the gap between retirement and eligibility for Medicare at age 65.

Buffalo schools want to end retiree health insurance for future teachers

In contract talks, the school district has proposed eliminating retired health insurance for any teachers hired after ratification of a new contract, district general counsel Nathaniel Kuzma confirmed Friday.

Phil Rumore, the BTF president, said retired health insurance should not be a major sticking point because it would not save the district money for at least 20 years. “What’s the urgency?” he asked Wednesday. He’s repeated in the past that he does not want to divide former and future union members.

But Jim Barnes, the district’s chief financial officer and part of the negotiating team, countered with how future contractual liabilities complicate the financial picture.

“As you hire people, you’re incurring a future liability to pay their future health insurance until they pass,” said Barnes, whose estimated the district’s debt liability is $2 billion for all future obligations. Barnes added that reducing the liability would improve the district’s short- and long-term financial health.

Fact-finder recommends raises to make Buffalo teacher pay competitive but falls short of union proposal

The recommendations released Tuesday are intended to guide the district and Buffalo Teachers Federation in resolving an impasse since 2019.

The union president told the board that the district has not responded to his counteroffers about retired health insurance.

Rumor said the other area of ​​contention was the length of the school year. Under the district’s proposal, teachers would still complete 180 days of instruction, but their pay would be spread over 43 weeks instead of the current 42. Rumor requested more discussion on the payment calendar.

Compromises on salaries, bell times and athletic coach hiring were the fruits from the bushel of meetings since Feb. 14. Kuzma spent the bulk of his half-hour presentation explaining how teacher salaries would increase, citing a 10% one-time bonus after an 8% raise. The previous offer was an 8% bonus before an 8% raise.

A 6% increase would follow on July 1, 2023, with 4% and 3% increases the ensuing two years – these increases have been consistent in the last two proposals. Starting salaries for Buffalo teachers would put the district behind only Lackawanna for the highest.

Superintendent Tonja M. Williams, General Counsel Nathaniel J. Kuzma and Chief of Human Resources Tami Hollie-McGee spoke about the state of negotiations between the district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation, describing how an independent fact-finder’s report on Monday closely reflected the district’s proposals. Williams and Kuzma, especially, emphasized their desire to get a contract done now, while Hollie-McGee said that the lack of a new contract has been a deterrent to hiring new teachers. The news conference took place on Feb. 1, 2023, at West Hertel Academy.

Ben Tsujimoto

The district would also decrease the step ladder for wages from 27 to 24, which would allow teachers to reach the maximum salary in a shorter time. Neither Kuzma nor Rumor detailed the compromises on bell times and athletic coaching hires.

Wednesday’s update pleased almost no one. Kuzma, frustrated by the lack of a contract after the district’s updated offer, faced brushback from the school board – both in private meetings and publicly Wednesday – about salary concessions the negotiating team made since the independent fact-finder’s report was published last month.

Board members were concerned that, under the new district proposal, more than $50 million of the $70 million increase in state foundation aid would immediately be spent on the teachers’ new contract. Kuzma estimated the total cost of the most recent proposal, about $225 million, was about $25 million more than the one presented to the fact-finder.

“What was already put on this table was sufficient enough to meet everyone’s needs,” said Belton-Cottman, who suggested the board develop a Plan B for the $50 million initially allocated for teacher raises. “And I don’t think there’s anyone in Western New York who doesn’t feel that this is a decent offer. Very decent.”

Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at [email protected], at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsaj10.