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Buffalo teachers rally for new contracts, school counselors and more

BTF protest
Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore addresses teachers during Wednesday's protest.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation held what longtime leader Phil Rumore described as one of its largest demonstrations ever outside a Buffalo school board meeting Wednesday.

Marching in front of PS #95 Waterfront Elementary School, where the board meeting began at 5:30 p.m., well over 100 teachers rallied in support of new contract negotiations and expressed frustration over a number of other school-related issues.

The teachers’ contract expired at the end of June, but attempts to start negotiations between BTF and Buffalo Public Schools collapsed in April.

“We’re out here because the school board is not willing to negotiate with us and we really don’t want to be 12 years again waiting on a contract,” said Ruyvette Townsend, a second grade teacher at PS #3 D’Youville Porter Campus School.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Teachers march in front of Waterfront Elementary School, with a view of City Hall.

“We’re hoping that by being out here they’ll understand that we’re serious and we want a raise just like they all received their raises,” she told WBFO, referring to the raises for high-level district administrative staff the board approved in an 8-1 majority vote in August.

Rumore walked out of the April negotiations as part of a dispute over ground rules for the talks.

“They’re just giving us the back of the hand,” Rumore said Wednesday. “They haven’t even started, and then when they tell us they’re going to negotiate with us, they’re not going to agree to ground rules. How do you negotiate without ground rules? That’s like playing baseball without rules.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Phil Rumore leads chants of assembled public school teachers.

Nathaniel Kuzma, general counsel for Buffalo Public Schools, said Rumore’s focus on the ground rules “is nothing but a tactic” and “nothing but a distraction and noise.”

“The law does not require you to negotiate ground rules, and we’ve opted not to do that at this point in time because, quite simply, the BTF has not followed the ground rules in the past,” Kuzma told WBFO.

Still, some teachers are getting restless, and salaries are not their only concern.

“We’d like to see smaller class sizes. We would like to see more support for our ENL [English as a New Language] students [and] for our students that have emotional, physical difficulties,” said Kathleen Kinney, a first grade teacher at PS #19 Native American Magnet School. “And we’d really like to see more art, music, PE, because those are really essential things that aren’t happening as much as they should be.”

Amy Borowiak made her own sign for the protest. It read, “My Counseling Caseload is 858:1.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Amy Borowiak is the sole school counselor at Waterfront Elementary School.

“That means that in a pre-K-8 building of 858 students as of today, I am the only school counselor,” she explained. She also said she’s worked at Waterfront Elementary—the site of Wednesday’s meeting—for 19 years. Waterfront used to have two full-time counselors, but as the result of the end of a grant, it is now down to one.

“My poor principal had to choose between a reading teacher and a counselor,” Borowiak said, when the school needs as many counselors as possible to help its student body cope with high rates of poverty and trauma. “They [the students] need that ear to talk to. They need alone time. They need time with a caring adult to help them.”

Borowiak said she wants the district to adhere to the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of a 250-to-1 ratio.

Whether all of the teacher’s concerns can be satisfied through the coming negotiations remains to be seen.

Kuzma, of Buffalo Public Schools, said the district respects teachers and their rights to assemble and participate in the democratic process. He added, “We’re excited about the opportunity to get to the table and engage in tough-spirited negotiations.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.