School aides demand new contract, suspensions discussed at Buffalo school board meeting

Feb 13, 2020

A new contract for teacher aides and assistants, out-of-school suspensions and charter school push-outs were among the major issues discussed at Wednesday’s meeting of the Buffalo Board of Education.

The regular monthly meeting was held in the Common Council Chamber at City Hall in order to accommodate at least 100 members of the Buffalo Education Support Team (BEST), the union that represents full- and part-time teacher and school aides, health care aides and teaching assistants.

“We are currently paid 11% below the poverty line, which leads to significant turnovers. We have lost dedicated, skilled staff because they could no longer afford to do the work they love,” said BEST President JoAnn Sweat, as her members stood in solidarity while she addressed the board.

BEST members applaud as union leaders address the Buffalo Board of Education.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

“We need experienced, stable and veteran staff. It’s what is best for our students.”

Another BEST member said the starting salary for most teacher aides is $16.01.

“Many jobs in our communities which do not require the same skill level as ours are compensated at a higher rate. For example, just driving home from work I see signs from Delta Sonic [that say] ‘Starting Salary: $20/hour,’” she said. “This makes me and my colleagues feel undervalued. Most of us must secure second jobs, which help make ends meet.”

BEST’s current contract with Buffalo Public Schools expired in 2012 and the union has vowed to attend every school board meeting until a new agreement is finalized with the district.

Several board members thanked the BEST members present and urged district staff to finalize a new contract with the union as soon as possible. Superintendent Kriner Cash said they’re currently at the table and he wants to get it done.

Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash speaks alongside school board president Sharon Belton-Cottman.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Cash also responded to several community speakers who spoke out about the district’s disproportionate suspensions of African American and Hispanic students, who make up 66% of Buffalo’s student body but represented 85% of long-term suspensions and 84% of short-term suspensions from September-December 2019, according to district data.

Some speakers also asked the board to adopt a policy banning suspensions in pre-K through third grade, a goal that was discussed at a recent community forum on suspensions.

“Suspensions are just a symptom of disproportionality, and disproportionality, when it comes to people of color, exists in just about every system that I can think of that deals with our lives,” Cash said. “Let’s count what really counts, ‘cause we can reduce suspensions, just stop counting them. See? And there’s some districts that do that. But what we do is get to the root cause and then we say, ‘Let’s work on this. Let’s fix this.’”

Cash added that the suspension issue is one of the historical injustices he’s been focused on overcoming since coming to Buffalo in 2015. He did not mention that the district has been notified by the Office of the New York Attorney General Letitia James that it received a complaint about disproportionate suspensions in Buffalo Public Schools. WBFO’s reporting confirmed that last week.

Central District Board Representative Paulette Woods was one of several board members to address the number of students returning from charter schools to district schools.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Another issue brought up by several board members Wednesday is the annual return of hundreds of students from charter schools in Buffalo back to the city’s public schools. Board members reported they’re getting a lot of phone calls about that now and alleged that charters are pushing students who aren’t performing well out before upcoming state tests in March and April.

Central District Board Representative Paulette Woods said 319 students have already returned from charter schools to the district this year. Cash said the average number over the past several school years has been around 700.

The superintendent also said the district expects its annual accountability report from the New York State Education Department to be released Thursday. He predicted that about 75% of Buffalo’s 60 schools will be deemed to be in good standing.