Ah, the Triborough Amendment rears its ugly head once again. As Michael Allegretti noted here last week, "The Amendment costs New York State government more than $130 million a year. It costs school districts almost $300 million annually." (See the Manhattan Institute's recent Empire Center report, "Triborough Trouble," for more details.) (Steve Malanga has more on the troublesome Triborough Amendment here.)
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore... said... that his union would be happy to drop the rider during the next round of contract negotiations. But therein lay the problem.
Buffalo's teachers haven't had a new contract since the last one expired in 2004. That's because they haven't needed one, thanks to a 1982 state law known as the Triborough Amendment. Under the law, when a public employee's contract expires, they are allowed to continue working under its terms until their union reaches a new agreement with the state. They get to keep all their benefits, along with any yearly salary increase built into the old deal. In the case of the Buffalo schools, teachers have been getting yearly 2.5% "step increases" since 2007, when the state-imposed control board that oversees Buffalo's municipal finances unfroze salaries.
As a result, there isn't much incentive for the union to sit down and hash out a new contract. Not in these days of government austerity, and not when they might be asked to make additional concessions on fundamental issues such as teacher evaluations.
"The urgency of negotiating a new contract isn't really there," said Amber Dixon, interim-superintendant for Buffalo's schools. "You get to keep your benefits. You get to keep your cosmetic rider. You get to keep your 2.5% step increase. It makes getting back to the table difficult."
'Why does Buffalo pay for its teachers to have plastic surgery?'
Jordan Weissmann raises the question over at The Atlantic. The short answer is, naturally, "the union negotiated the perk with the district, that's why." But the longer answer is much more interesting, and tells us a great deal about collective bargaining laws and why certain common sense reforms are so difficult to achieve.
Weissmann reports that just about everyone in Buffalo knows the plastic surgery perk, which cost the Buffalo school district (and therefore Buffalo taxpayers) $5.2 million last year, is a bad deal. The insurance rider apparently dates back to the 1970s, when it was "intended to cover serious reconstructive surgery, on burn victims, for instance."
In reality, the benefit pays for liposuction, botox, a little nip, a little tuck, you name it. Plastic surgeons have advertised directly to teachers in the union newsletter. A few years ago, one local doctor billed the district $4 million. It's a great scam, outrageous to the public, but perfectly legal.
So, why can't the district and the union simply agree to end the insurance rider? Weissmann explains:
Suffice to say, Buffalo's schools are dreadful. As I reported in an article last year for City Journal online, Buffalo's school district "serves nearly 33,000 students in 59 schools. The state lists 13 of those schools on its 'Persistently Lowest Achievement' list, with another 13 on the bubble. Truancy is rampant, with over half of students in the district absent more than 20 school days. In a district with a majority black population, only about a quarter of black males graduate high school. Buffalo's overall high school graduation rate is a pathetic 47 percent. And of those who manage to earn diplomas, just 15 percent are ready for college. The district's board of education voted earlier this year to turn over seven struggling campuses to outside groups and has asked for $54 million in federal 'school turnaround' grants." No wonder parents there are lobbying hard for a parent trigger law.
Especially in an era of cuts in state funding and layoffs, you would think the Buffalo Teachers Federation would be willing to give up the plastic surgery perk. Weissmann calculated that cutting the $5.2 million cost would let the district save 100 teaching jobs. District officials even put that offer on the table, but the union declined. "It only wanted to deal with the rider during a full contract negotiation," Weissmann writes.
Please remember that next time the teachers union go to Albany pleading poverty. (Oh, wait, they're already there.)
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