Editorial: On City Honors, negotiate for students’ sake

City Honors, Buffalo’s premier magnet school, has for the past few years been a magnet for controversy, pitting the teachers union against the Buffalo Public Schools in a dispute over work duties.

A recent ruling by a state judge may not be the last word, but for now it affirms that Superintendent Kriner Cash’s hands are not tied by the Buffalo Teachers Federation when it comes to personnel decisions for the school. That’s an important win for the chief administrator of our financially troubled school district.

To recap: City Honors School teachers had a longtime understanding that they were excused from non-teaching duties, such as monitoring the lunch room and study halls. The district would hire aides to perform the non-teaching duties, but ended that practice in 2010, shifting those duties to the teachers.

The union filed a grievance, which was settled through arbitration in 2016. The arbitrator sided with the BTF, and a State Supreme Court judge upheld the decision.

As a result of the ruling, the district in February hired 16 aides to perform the non-teaching duties. The district sent word to teachers that it would eliminate 5.5 positions in order to pay for the $571,000 in salaries and benefits for the aides. The targeted teachers plus an instructional coach and half a counselor position would be transferred to other schools. However, the union obtained a temporary restraining order, blocking the transfers. State Supreme Court Justice Diane Y. Devlin on Monday lifted the restraining order.

BTF President Philip Rumore maintains that he will go back to court if the district tries to transfer teachers out of City Honors for the coming school year. But as of now, nothing is stopping the district from making the transfers by the time classes resume on Sept. 6.

The union’s argument is that the transfers are in retaliation against teachers at the school. The cuts are said to include a math teacher, and English language arts teacher, and two music teachers, among others. Upset at the prospect of losing those instructors, several students and parents from the City Honors community held demonstrations calling for the two sides to resolve the conflict without any teacher transfers.

Some questioned whether hiring 16 new aides seemed excessive. According to a story in The News, the School Board’s approved budget for next year includes the hiring of 13 aides at the school.

Still, something had to give. It is the teachers and their union representatives who cling to the notion that out-of-classroom duties, such as in the lunchroom and study hall, or recycling work, is beneath them. City Honors is the only school in the district where the teachers exempt themselves from those jobs, a privilege that likely doesn’t endear them to the hardworking teachers at the city’s other schools.

Money to pay aides has to come from somewhere. The district has a projected budget deficit of $8.5 million for the coming year, partly due to the expensive contract negotiated with the BTF in 2016. And to meet the changing needs of students, Buffalo Public Schools has added more than 580 new teachers and staff in the past four years, despite shrinking enrollment. That doesn’t come cheap.

The BTF and the district are said to be in arbitration over the dispute. There does not need to be a winner-take-all outcome if the two sides are willing to compromise on the teachers taking on the extra duties and being compensated for doing so.

That would be a major victory for the students, who should be everyone’s primary concern.