Buffalo Schools Must Honor Teacher Raises in '90 Pact, Court Rules

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The Buffalo, N.Y., district must honor a disputed 1990 contract that could cost it $150 million or more in back pay for teachers, the state's highest court has ruled.

The New York Court of Appeals decided last month that the city's school board is legally obligated to fulfill the terms of the negotiated agreement, which called for teachers to receive raises of 35 percent over four years.

The court's 7-0 decision in favor of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which reverses a lower court order, stunned district and city officials.

While there are no firm estimates of the amount owed to the city's 3,800 teachers, the total is likely to exceed $150 million, according to the union. The district's annual budget is $390 million.

The district plans to petition the court to rehear the case, but concedes that the court is unlikely to take it up again, said J. Andrew Maddigan, a district spokesman.

"This came as quite a surprise," Mr. Maddigan said of the Dec. 19 ruling. "All the indications we were receiving were that the chance of the BTF prevailing was a snowball's chance in hell."

The 47,000-student district, currently trying to close a $4 million budget gap, doesn't have the money to pay teachers the full amount called for in the 1990-94 agreement. The district, which gets 70 percent of its budget from the state, also has no power to raise its own taxes.

Philip Rumore, the president of the BTF, said that union leaders intend to "work toward a solution that everyone can live with."

"I'm a teacher and a resident of the city of Buffalo," he said. "We don't intend to bankrupt the city."

Plugging Escape Hatch

The case began in September 1990 when negotiators for both sides reached an agreement that union members ratified, but the school board rejected it.

The union filed an improper-practice charge with the state, charging that the district's chief negotiator had undermined the pact. The state agreed and ordered the board to sign the agreement. In 1993, board members did so, but they also voted not to provide the money for it.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals rejected the board's argument that it was required to take a separate vote on funding.

Such a two-step process, the judges wrote, would amount to "a bait-and-switch escape hatch from negotiated, agreed-upon contract terms" and would leave teachers "at the mercy of a profoundly flawed and unfair collective bargaining procedure."

Robert Chanin, the National Education Association's general counsel, who argued the case, said the decision strongly endorsed a level playing field for unions and employers. "This will be helpful in other circumstances as well."

Although the teachers won a victory, Mr. Rumore said that the union realizes it may have to settle for less than the full amount owed.

Under a new contract, teachers have received raises totaling 26 percent in the past two years. The union agreed to reduce the district's liability for the back pay by a certain percentage if the union won the court case, but made no other concessions in the new pact.

"The city is in deep trouble right now," Mr. Rumore said. "But it's not the teachers' fault that money was not put aside for this."

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