A State Supreme Court judge Tuesday upheld an arbitrator's decision that found the Buffalo Public Schools' involuntary transfer of 54 teachers at three low-achieving schools violated the union contract.
Justice Gerald J. Whalen announced his decision following 20 minutes of oral arguments by attorneys for the district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
"A court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the arbitrator simply because it believes its interpretation would be a better one," Whalen said, quoting a decision from a previous court case.
An arbitrator had ruled that the union contract does not universally prohibit involuntary transfers but that specific aspects of the way the district executed the transfers violated the contract.
In court Tuesday, Whalen also said he was denying the union's request for an injunction against the transfers.
"I think the district should have the opportunity to move forward and honor the court's judgment," he said. "Or it could take the opportunity to appeal."
Karl W. Kristoff, the Hodgson Russ attorney representing the district, said the School Board will decide soon how to proceed. Its next regular meeting is next Wednesday.
State laws require the district to implement a plan to turn around persistently low-achieving schools, including the three in question: Futures Academy, Drew Science Magnet and Bilingual Center 33. The district has four improvement models to choose from.
Kristoff said in court papers that only two models were viable options for the three schools: turnaround, which requires moving half the teachers, and restart, which involves hiring an outside group to run the schools.
The district issued a request for proposals from outside groups, but it got no adequate responses for Futures or Drew, he said. One group submitted what seemed to be an acceptable plan for the Bilingual Center, but the board later determined that because the group had no experience running a school, it was not a viable option.
Kristoff said the only option left for the district to comply with state law was a turnaround, meaning teachers had to be transferred.
"I understand the court was confronted with two competing interests: one favoring arbitration and one favoring the reformation of schools that have for some significant period of time been underperforming," Kristoff said after the hearing.
"Contrary to the court's view, it was the district's position that the reformation of the schools is the more important legislative mandate."
Kathleen Creighton, of Creighton Johnsen & Giroux, represented the BTF. She argued that the district cannot violate the union contract, as the arbitrator had ruled.
"The federal law from which all this stems said specifically not only is it improper for districts to violate collective-bargaining agreements, it is also improper for districts to violate state laws," she said.
"Here we have the Taylor Law in New York State. The employer cannot violate the Taylor Law and unilaterally change the collective-bargaining agreement."
BTF President Philip Rumore attended the hearing.
"Hopefully, the board will now live up to the contract that it agreed to and will not continue to drag this out through the courts. Case law is clear, and the decision is clear," he said. "We're hopeful the board will not throw down the gauntlet to the teachers by once again ignoring the contract that both sides agreed to."
Christopher Putrino, the school district's general counsel, sat in the audience during the hearing but declined to comment afterward.