New York State Superintendent Imposes Collective Bargaining Changes in Buffalo

Published January 12, 2016

The head of the State of New York’s school system has taken action under a new state law allowing her to impose a superintendent’s proposed revisions to a collective bargaining contract, despite objections from the teachers union on the other side of the table.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia handed down the ruling on November 9. The changes apply to five of Buffalo’s schools, which have been identified as the worst-performing schools in the city. The Buffalo City School District has 57 schools.

Buffalo City School District Superintendent Kriner Cash asked Elia to intervene after negotiations stalled with the Buffalo Teachers Federation union.

New Law Empowers Administrators

The New York State Assembly passed a new law in April 2015 pertaining to school receivership. The state’s Board of Regents then approved new regulations in June to implement the provisions of the law.

The law allows the state to change the collective bargaining agreement in five areas: length of the school day, length of the school year, professional development for teachers and administrators, class size and changes to programs, and assignments and teaching conditions. According to officials representing New York State, Cash wanted to increase the length of the school year and school day at five of the city’s schools labeled “Persistently Struggling.” That designation applies to schools that have been on the state’s accountability watch list for several consecutive years.

The law calls for an increase in compensation for school employees when the length of the school day or school year is extended.

“Students at these Persistently Struggling schools need help right now,” Elia said in a press release. “The receivership law gives the superintendent enhanced authority in order to maintain local control while facilitating rapid improvement in student outcomes. This receivership collective bargaining agreement will, among other things, enable Dr. Cash to more effectively utilize and deploy effective teachers and make changes to programs and teaching assignments—all of which will ensure that students in these struggling schools are provided with increased educational opportunities.”

In a letter to the National Education Association, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said his union would be working with the New York State United Teachers union to challenge Elia’s changes to their contract. The law requires that after a school district has requested intervention in negotiations, it must bargain in good faith with the unions for 30 days before declaring an impasse. The union says negotiations were making progress and they requested an extension to the 30-day period, which is allowable under the law. The union also claims the district didn’t negotiate over the items covered by the new receivership law.

A ‘Dire and Drastic Situation’

Charles Sahm, director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City, says the poor performance of the schools that went into receivership requires drastic action.

“[Elia] is recognizing these kids are in a pretty dire and drastic situation,” Sahm said. “The state constitution guarantees a sound basic education. When you have almost no students in the schools scoring proficient on state exams, you can make a case they are being denied those guaranteed rights. … Obviously, something has to be done with these schools. If the teachers union is not going to allow any meaningful intervention, there is a way to go around these unions.”

The new law provides the way to do so, Sahm says.

Cynthia Estlund, a professor of law at the New York University School of Law, said she did a quick review of the commissioner’s ruling and it appears to be legal under state law.

“There is no great novelty in the idea of a ‘receivership’ in which normal governance procedures are suspended,” Estlund said.

Tom Gantert ([email protected]) is senior capitol correspondent for Michigan Capitol Confidential, a daily news site of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Image by Violet Jiang.