Another perspective on the Buffalo school board and the teachers’ union

BY AUSTIN HARIG

Former Candidate for Buffalo School Board

In May 2016, I ran for the Buffalo School Board against Carl Paladino.

I lost (by 2% of the vote), but it was a campaign driven by ideology. Mr. Paladino had his and I had mine and they were diametrically different. So were our stations in life.

Mr. Paladino is a successful developer and businessman, a political activist, an outspoken candidate for governor. I was an 18-year-old high school student.

Insofar as Mr. Paladino published two articles recently in Artvoice, where he describes his view of the Buffalo Schools, I took the liberty of writing an article of my own and Artvoice offered me the same platform as Mr. Paladino to discuss my views of the Buffalo Public Schools.

The Teacher’s Union, Phil Rumore, and the Contract

Some people might have you believe that Phil Rumore is the devil incarnate. Others say he is a wise, able leader. My impression is that Mr. Rumore is a kind, smart, mature, decent man, who has a job, a duty, as president of the Buffalo Teacher’s Federation, to improve the lot of teachers.

He led – for the union (not the school district or its board) – negotiations for the new contract for teachers. It was a contract that had been unsigned for 12 years and, from talking with them at the time, I learned that many teachers were unsure about their future.

Despite what critics say about Buffalo teachers being overpaid, I think a lot of teachers didn’t feel that way. They had some perks that were unique, and while they may have had an advantage in early years of tenured employment, many teachers felt their pay did not keep pace with other districts as they advanced in seniority and their jobs in this district were just as challenging as those in more affluent suburban districts.

I do not plan to discuss the merits of their position, I only say I understand that teachers with families and lives outside of school and mortgage payments and ambitions, and college tuition for their children are naturally vitally interested in making more money, just like you and I.

They elected Mr. Rumore, who himself is a retired teacher, to represent them and, if need be, fight for their interests.

Mr. Rumore was the hard negotiator for the group, who as individuals may not be so good at negotiations. Being a teacher is hard enough without being a hard-nosed business person. It takes years and lots of money (and student debt) to get the qualifications and experience, and in the end they don’t get paid as well as many other jobs of far less importance.

Mr. Paladino, I am sure, is old enough to remember that there was a time when teachers worked for very low salaries. They taught out of love. They still do. But due to the hard world we live in now, I don’t think it is incompatible with the highest ideals of being a teacher, to desire to earn a decent living.
Getting a master’s degree, dedicating your life to teaching children, and wanting to be decently paid, are not incompatible.

Which brings me back to Mr. Rumore. I submit that he not only wanted what’s best for the teachers he represented, but he wants what’s best for the students. I think he believes that happy, contented, decently paid teachers will be better teachers, ready to do more for the children in the schools.

And, as they are on the frontline of dealing with children everyday, not one or two but 20 or 30 or 100 every day to whom they must try to give some personal, individual attention – to try to help kids be successful – it is not unreasonable to suggest that they too – the teachers – should feel a little successful themselves.

The Dysfunction on the Board

In recent years, the School Board has been in the throes of factionalism.

Today, the majority bloc is led by Dr. Barbara Seals-Nevergold, and includes five other members. The minority bloc is led by Mr. Paladino, and has two others, Patti Pierce and Larry Quinn.

Just last year, the situation was reversed. It was a 5-4 majority with Mr. Paladino’s bloc in control. Here’s the issue. Generally, governing bodies, though they may disagree on issues, are at their best when they make an effort to get along with each other and move, when they can, outside the thrall of politics.
This has not happened on the Buffalo School Board. Each side sees the other as hostile, and the result is lack of cooperation. I hope that one day there will not be a majority or minority bloc. Each should think for themselves, each vote for themselves and respect each other. There should be both debate and friendship. This the way we would teach our children and this is the way a school board can work.

In my opinion, the Board should focus on improving technology and work skills training programs in schools, two things much in need of upgrades in our school system. They should focus on increasing student support services for our most in-need children, providing them help and the tools they need to overcome their difficulties in life and continue their education. They should focus on giving children a little more art, music, and physical education, all things that children need to grow and to dream.

By focusing on these things, with dignity, respect and kindliness toward each other, the school board will be working for the betterment of children, which is why each of them ran and why they were elected.

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