Education 2011: Parsing Phil Rumore
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the bulldog leader of the Buffalo teachers union has a softer side. After all, it’s a truism that tough guys often have tender hearts. Phil Rumore, president of the 3,400-member Buffalo Teachers Federation for the past three decades (he was just elected to another two-year term, having run unopposed), is publicly perceived as fearless and feisty. In private conversation, he oozes charm, and he talks a lot, like someone who’s been thinking about his life and legacy. Like someone who might be tempted to write a memoir one day. As if writing out loud in a diary, he details and highlights events mundane and momentous. Somewhere in the middle of adjectival extremes, one suspects, lies the real Phil Rumore.
You don’t sound like you’re from here. What’s your backstory?
I was born in Queens—South Ozone Park. My parents divorced when I was two; I was an only child, raised by my mother. She worked as a medical secretary. I never even knew my father. About five years ago, I discovered I had a stepsister. She put me in touch with him. By then, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I never saw him again. … At some point in my childhood, we moved to live with an aunt and uncle on Long Island—North Bellmore. I went to East Rockaway High School, where I did well enough to think I could skip assignments. I never got into any big trouble, but I saw things my own way. Math and science were my favorite subjects, and I had a 90-plus average on Regents. Sometimes I ran away from home … I was a free spirit—I was on both the football team and the chess team. My senior paper topic, which I had to complete to graduate, was on the evolution of the universe and life. It got me thinking a lot about matter and energy, which I called “mattergy.”
Nothing simple for you—you were a big thinker. But you did finish that paper and graduate, right?
I graduated high school in 1960. I’d been accepted to Cortland State, but I couldn’t really afford to go to college, so I joined the Air Force, where I studied electronics. After I got out, I sold encyclopedias for a while. Then I went to Cortland on the G.I. Bill. I studied physics and philosophy, with a major interest in relativity theory.
What is with you and Einstein?
Einstein is one of my heroes—after my mother, who died two years ago. She was eighty-six, a great lady; I was right there with her, holding her hand when she died. … The thing about Albert Einstein that I so admire is he had the courage to think the unthinkable. I have this need to get back to exploring relativity theory. Maybe I will study with a physicist—I want to answer my question, what does the speed of light have to do with anything? It’s like an itch, and my brain cells are still firing. … It’s really a simple theory, you know—I taught it to all my students when I was in special ed.
How did you get into teaching? And how did you get to Buffalo?
I didn’t finish at Cortland. After two years, I enrolled at UB, where I graduated half a year early with a degree in philosophy. I found out they’d forgive your National Defense Loan if you taught for five years in the inner city, so I got a job at School 6 on Buffalo’s East Side, teaching emotionally disturbed kids. My first job as a teacher; it was 1968. I taught for thirteen years. Along the way I became a union delegate.
Hard to imagine you as the new kid on the block, but when you ran for BTF president the first time, you were a relative unknown. How did you finesse that?
Tom Pisa was stepping down as president, and he had a handpicked successor lined up. There were a few of us who ran against him, and I ended up in a runoff with the Pisa protégé. I won. It was 1981.
Guess you never looked back. What’s kept you going—what’s so great about heading the BTF? Didn’t it land you in jail once?
This is one of the most awesome jobs anyone could have. You can make real change; you can fight for what you believe in—from smaller classes to more services for children and better salaries for teachers. My job is like a calling. I don’t know how someone who is married could do this. I’ve never been married—any woman who’d want to marry me would have to be crazy, and I don’t want to marry a crazy woman. I always thought I would have kids one day, though. I love kids. But listen, I have a family. The teachers and students are my family. Here is the way I see it: The teachers’ working conditions are the children’s working conditions. And I am proud of the fact that the teachers trust me, and have re-elected me.
We have made some real accomplishments, like class size limits, and getting art, music and phys ed back in the contract. Now I want to get a long-term contract in place so there is more stability for the teachers and the district. In this job you have to be comfortable knowing you are doing the right thing and being able to say you were wrong if that’s the case. But I have not made any big blunders. My thinking is, if you go a certain way, and it’s not right, make a mid-course correction. The point is to keep moving forward.
Even if you are moving forward into jail?
Yes, in 2000, I went to jail. It is illegal for public employees in New York State to strike. That negotiation, we had come to an agreement, but the School Board voted it down. We had planned a rotating strike, a third of the schools at a time, but they were ready for that, so at the last minute, we called everyone out. I was sent to jail for two weeks for violating a court order not to strike. I was the leader, and my mother taught me to accept responsibility for what you do. They sent me to Wende Correctional Facility, where I taught a couple of classes. They let me bring in my Einstein books. After a week, I was released “for good behavior.” When my mother found out, she called and said she was glad to hear I got out, but she found it hard to believe it was for good behavior!
Your life sounds like some kind of urban swashbuckling adventure. Don’t you get discouraged in the current climate, which seems anti-union at best?
It can be frustrating, trying to fight the bureaucracy and the insanity that’s coming out of the federal government, where they are telling you [that] to get money, you have to do things you know are stupid.
The state standards are all about structured, rigid teaching. There is no creative thinking. Critical thinking is dead. They are making it so there is no joy in teaching, and no joy in learning anymore.
If I had a magic wand, I would change it so there’s no more poverty in the world, and stop spending money on wars and killing, but direct it toward health care and educating our kids. I would like to put those people who are making the decisions into the classrooms, without teachers, and see how it works.
No one has a clue what our teachers are going through with the kids today. When I was a kid, we played punchball in the street. None of my friends were shot to death. All I had to worry about was getting home before dark.
And I don’t think some people understand the importance of unions. With so many out of work, it’s easy for someone to think unionized workers have so much, and if you’re unemployed, you have nothing. Well, this too shall pass; attitudes will change when the employment situation improves.
You can’t be BTF head forever, can you? Do you have a successor lined up?
No. I wasn’t groomed. I am not so sure a person can do this job if they have to be groomed. You need the inner drive. When I leave, I will be leaving a really well-trained staff here to support whoever is the next president. Someone will emerge.
Maria Scrivani is a Buffalo native who believes teachers are the world’s unsung heroes.