One of the most preposterous expenses that Western New York taxpayers are forced to bear is the cosmetic surgery rider included in some public union contracts, including that of Buffalo teachers, where the cost has become particularly onerous.
Facing elimination of nearly half the Buffalo School District’s band and orchestra programs, the School Board is targeting superficial anti-wrinkle procedures such as facial peels and microderm abrasions. The cost of such procedures to the district in the 2011-12 school year came to nearly $1.7 million, according to School Board member John B. Licata, who has sponsored a resolution to deny such claims from teachers and administrators.
We sympathize with Licata and the board, which unanimously approved his resolution in late June, but as Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, noted, this is a contractual issue. For reasons that defy understanding, the school district at one time provided that benefit to some teachers and administrators.
As foolish as it was, the cosmetic surgery rider is in the contract. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the district simply to decide not to cover certain procedures.
But now, teachers and students are about to pay a steep price for it. Licata believes the savings from his proposal could help preserve the endangered music programs, whose pending termination has stirred anger in the community.
In the hands of rational people, an obvious bargain would be evident. The BTF gives up the cosmetic rider – which Rumore has said he is willing to do – instructors get to keep their jobs and students get to keep music programs, which are critical to some of them.
Unfortunately, rational is not a word easily applied to the working relationship between the district and the union. Indeed, it is as dysfunctional as they come. The union rarely shows any interest in saving jobs, preferring to sacrifice members rather than compromise, even on easy issues like the cosmetic surgery rider. And despite its periodic claims of devotion to the students, the union’s interest is its members, money and influence, and not necessarily in that order.
For its part, the district has been known to make rash decisions that backfire. In 2005, it unilaterally decided to offer union members one health insurer, even though the contract called for four. The BTF went to court and, three years later, prevailed.
The problem faced by the district is that state labor law leans heavily in favor of unions and away from taxpayers. In a weak economy such as today’s, the law incentivizes unions not to negotiate in good faith, since contract terms, including step raises, stay in force even after contracts expire.
Thus, the district can likely do little about the rider without negotiations, but the union may not want to negotiate the kind of givebacks the district needs. It’s a prescription for doing nothing.
Still, negotiating will be needed. The angels may be on the district’s side when it comes to changes that could protect the education of thousands of city students, but the law is on the union’s side. Sad to say, the law usually trumps angels.