by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
Phil Rumore is considered Public Enemy No. 1 by a fair number of people in this town. His term as president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation ends today, and a lot of folks are happy to see him go.
I get it. He can be obstinate. The Buffalo teachers he represents enjoy generous health insurance benefits through to retirement. Nary a teacher gets fired for incompetence. Settling grievances, of which there were many, could be overly difficult.
But you know what? All these years, 42 of them, he was doing his job. He didn’t represent taxpayers or students or their parents. He’s gotten paid to represent teachers.
I don’t fault him – not too much, anyway.
Rather, I blame the superintendents (a dozen) and school boards he’s negotiated with over the years. He’s had their lunch, over and over again. He’s been strong, they’ve been weak.
I know this firsthand from covering Buffalo schools in the 1990s and dealing with Rumore, on and off, since then. There have been times we commiserated over hot dogs at the old Ted’s by the Peace Bridge, or Theodore’s by the Lake, as he called it, and times we’ve gone without speaking over our upset with each other. (Of late, we’ve been on good terms, out of mutual respect.)
Much has been made of the gaps between contract settlements during Rumore’s tenure. Teachers have often worked under expired contracts while negotiations dragged on. A failure on Rumore’s part? Not if you understand the dynamics.
See, teachers got raises while working under an expired contract. Typically, pay increases as teachers gain experience. They’re called step increases. While they were getting automatic raises, they also got to hang onto benefits that most other public employees, to say nothing of those in the private sector, have been surrendering for decades.
Granted, it’s tough to bargain concessions from public employee unions. One can argue that union contracts for city teachers, cops and firefighters are financially generous, especially for an impoverished city like Buffalo, and strip school and city administrators of too many management rights. The use of seniority to determine job and overtime assignments is a particular problem, especially in the police department.
And good luck getting rid of deadwood and bad apples. Contracts and arbitration rulings make it difficult; the unwillingness of management to discipline and fire bad workers doesn’t help.
But I digress.
Rumore was doing his job. The people on the other side of the negotiating table weren’t. Not well, anyways.
An example: A member of the school board back when the district settled a contract with the BTF in 2016 told me then Superintendent Kriner Cash sealed the deal in an ill-advised, one-on-one session with Rumore. The board had given Cash a cap on what he could spend and a list of concessions he needed to get in exchange. Cash, going head-to-head with Rumore, spent beyond the limit and failed to get the necessary concessions.
Was the Rumore’s fault?
He settled his final contract earlier this year, winning major raises for teachers while finally compromising on health insurance for teachers retiring, albeit well into the future. If the interests of students and taxpayers are to be respected, the district will need to seek other concessions from the union in the days and years ahead.
Before the end of the year, the two sides are supposed to develop a plan to improve coaching of interscholastic sports. Right now, coaching jobs are monopolized by gym teachers, many of whom lack expertise in the sports they coach. My three kids attended city schools and, believe me, I sat through many games terribly coached by opposing schools.
More importantly, management rights need to be restored in the assignment of teachers. Right now, seniority rules, although savvy principles can often find ways of working around them. But the fact remains that schools with the students most in need are likely to be staffed by the least experienced teachers, when it ought to be the other way around.
Those issues will now be handled by Rumore’s successor, who has talked about being flexible. That’s a good thing.
As for Rumore, well, all I can say is he did his job, better than the people on the other side of the table. He’s due at least begrudging respect.