Oct 19


Interview: New leadership at Buffalo teachers union

“The thing we want to do is change measured in years, and not weeks, and not months,” said Rich Nigro, the first new president the Buffalo Teachers Federation has had in more than 40 years.

For the past four decades, the Buffalo Teachers Federation had the same leadership, the same voice and the same direction.

Then, in June, long-time BTF President Phil Rumore retired. In his place is Rich Nigro, who, three months into his first two-year term, is making this prediction: He won’t be staying as long as his predecessor.

“There is not a next 42 years,” said Nigro. “I’m not looking at 30 years. I’m not looking at 20 years. Ten years would be pushing it,” the 50-year-old union leader said.

The president’s office at the Buffalo Teachers Federation is noticeably different than it was in the Rumore years. These days, it’s more empty than full. 

There aren’t stacks of physics textbooks next to the desk, waiting to be handed out to new visitors, as was Rumore’s habit. Albert Einstein’s portrait no longer hangs on the wall. There aren’t any toy ducks — a favorite of Rumore’s — throughout the room. 

After all, there needs to be a little space for the change that’s to come, Nigro and Vice President Melinda MacPherson-Sullivan said, even if it’s only a bend in course rather than a full redirection.

“Change the curve slowly,” Nigro said. “The thing we want to do is change measured in years, and not weeks, and not months.”

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In June, Nigro and MacPherson-Sullivan won a runoff election against Marc Bruno and Patrick Foster with 68 percent of the vote. Of the district’s nearly 3,800 eligible members, 2,001 cast a ballot. 

Nigro had been a teacher in Buffalo’s school district for 25 years. He worked in a number of buildings, Nigro said, starting at McKinley High and ending at School 355 as an instructional technology coach.

MacPherson-Sullivan, 69, has ascended to the union’s vice presidency with more than three decades of teaching experience — from pre-kindergarten to adult learning.

As they settle into their new jobs, Nigro and MacPherson-Sullivan said one of the immediate goals is to remove the “mystery” of how the BTF works and to increase teacher engagement. The hope, they said, is to hear from union members who have not spoken up before.

“One of the things we ran on was communication,” Nigro said. “That’s one thing they’ve been clamoring for for a long time … That isn’t to say there was any kind of dereliction of duty with former leadership, we’re not saying that at all. But, I think we may just have a different style … Just the fact that this change in leadership has happened I think has created a bit of a fervor.” 

After so many years of Rumore’s leadership, MacPherson-Sullivan said “People [became] complacent. I mean, everybody kind of felt like, you know, Phil would do everything for them.”

Now, with a new emphasis on member involvement, MacPherson-Sullivan said the union should place “a little bit more of the onus on teachers to do things and not look to us all the time for the answers, because they have the answers, they have the power.”

“It’s a matter of finding our voice again,” Nigro said. “The power of a union lies in its membership.”

Issues to face

Nigro and MacPherson-Sullivan inherited the reins of a 3,800-member union in a school district that faces a number of issues, including safety and security, low academic achievement, student equity, future union benefits, and the end of hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds. 

Nearly two months into the school year, Buffalo schools have dealt with a number of security and behavioral challenges, from fights at athletic events to a Riverside student being knifed outside of the school. School officials have responded with more weapons detectors and a proposal to raise the number of security guards in the district from 91 to 137 by June 2025. 

Buffalo Superintendent Tonja Williams and Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman have said the district can only do so much and that there needs to be an added focus on the home life of students. 

Nigro agrees, not only for the safety of students, but for teachers, too.

“I don’t think we often talk about the problems that kids come to us with. When they go home, what kind of support are we getting as teachers, or is the school getting, from the homes that they’re going to?” Nigro said. “That has to be a piece to this puzzle.”

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Nigro said the union has been communicating with parent groups to build “collaboration” and “make things better” for the district. 

As a child growing up in Black Rock, Nigro said he sometimes walked to school with holes in his shoes. He got in fights with kids from other corners of the city. 

After he grew up, Nigro stayed in Buffalo and went on to work as a teacher for more than two decades.

He now lives in Akron. But a commitment to Buffalo Public Schools is evident: His wife, Marcia, works at McKinley High, and their daughter, Amber, attended the Academy for Performing and Visual Arts.

It’s his background, he said, that gives him a better understanding of what students today may be going through. In turn, he said he can help teachers more, too.

Nigro and MacPherson-Sullivan said the issues students face, both inside and outside of the classroom, “absolutely” have an impact on academic achievement.

“When I was growing up, I would say my home life had an impact on the person I became,” Nigro said. “Your life isn’t lived in these tiny, little, isolated moments. You become the person you are, and it’s shaped by everything around you.”

Not under pressure

The district and union are coming off the heels of contract negotiations that resulted in teachers receiving the second-highest wages in Western New York. It allows Nigro and MacPherson-Sullivan to approach the school year with less pressure, they said.

“We are fortunate enough to have landed in this position under a new contract. It takes a lot of weight off of our shoulders,” Nigro said. 

But those negotiations also saw the BTF give up the school district’s lifetime health insurance for future hires. It will not be offered to new employees after June 30, 2026, when the current contract expires. 

Moving forward, the union will work to keep the benefits they still have, BTF leadership said.

“People are leaving the profession because it’s so hard,” MacPherson-Sullivan said. “So any of the benefits that we have in our contract that have been hard-fought for and won, we’re going to keep those.”

Nigro said “collaboration” and “respect” will be at the core of conversations during the next contract negotiations.

“If you are talking with people, if you keep those lines open — even when it’s challenging, even when you’re disagreeing — you have to keep moving forward,” Nigro said. “You’ve got to keep trying.”

When asked about accountability and the discipline of lackluster teachers, BTF leadership said it was “up to the administration.”

“They’re the ones that will observe a teacher, and they are the ones that would make recommendations to that teacher, or provide that teacher with coaching,” MacPherson-Sullivan said. “If they find that teacher is unsuitable for the profession, they can do what they have to do.”

Nigro added that every teacher goes through a probationary period before becoming tenured.

“There’s a significant amount of time that passes before somebody becomes a tenured teacher,” he said.

The union leaders also addressed the potential ending of the district’s pandemic extra-help program, which will have spent its funding by October 2024.

This year, 263 full-time staff members will be funded through $30 million of remaining pandemic relief funds. Those positions include 81 teachers, all represented by the BTF.

Given turnover in the teaching ranks, any teachers losing their jobs will likely find another in the district, MacPherson-Sullivan said.

Nonetheless, the union would like to see the extra-help positions retained.

Elimination of the positions is “something, obviously, that we wouldn’t want to see happen,” Nigro said.

“We can get to that bridge when we come to it,” MacPherson-Sullivan said.

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BTF’s new leadership is still in its beginning stages, Nigro and MacPherson-Sullivan said. Like the first three months, the next few will include listening to membership concerns and ideas.

It’s that communication, they said, that will guide their leadership.

And in the end, Nigro said, the thing that got him into the office — bringing more members into the process — will likely be what drives him out. 

“More folks will kind of step up to the plate,” Nigro said. “There’s going to be people with some fresh ideas and a sense of confidence and purpose. And that is what’s going to keep the union vibrant and alive and moving forward. I’m not going to be here for 42 years.”

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