School district officials and school board members say they already are addressing many of the problems outlined in a final state audit that sharply criticized the district's financial management.
"It basically stated things that we knew about and have been working on over time," Superintendent James Harris said. "We've developed a plan that we'll be implementing. We are excited about the audit, and we plan to deal with it."
The State Education Department and the State Comptroller's Office released the audit Friday, three months after a draft version created a furor among public officials. Many critics of the school district, including members of the Masiello administration and the Western New York delegation to the State Legislature, said the highly critical draft pointed to a need for greater public oversight of the schools.
Friday, everyone took a more restrained approach while acknowledging the need for long-term changes in the district's management of finance and state-aid reimbursement. The fact the June draft and the final version were virtually identical accounted for much of the reflective tone. There were no surprises, and reaction consisted largely of renewed pledges to take the audit seriously.
"We are agreeing with about 98 percent of what they said," said school board President Paul G. Buchanan. "We are starting to implement what they recommended."
The audit was prompted last winter by the district's failure to file timely applications for $8.9 million in state aid reimbursements.
City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra, one of the district's most vocal critics in June, said the district needs to change the way it operates, not just implement the audit's recommendations.
"The real question is, how do we get them to move now to fix the problem?" asked Giambra, a candidate for county executive. He cited the district's payroll department, which was criticized in the audit for
doing many calculations by hand.
"If they were to automate, the question from a union perspective is, what do you do with those people? Those are the logistical answers that have to be ferreted out if you're going to make changes," said Giambra, Republican candidate for county executive.
State officials made subtle changes in some of their initial criticisms that slightly softened the report's tone, but the main message remained clear: The Buffalo School District needs to drastically improve the way it manages itself.
"Poor communication, inadequate oversight, outdated policies and procedures, and fragmented and inaccurate record-keeping have hurt the schools," Richard Mills, the state education commissioner, said Friday.
The final audit recommends 58 ways the district administration and the Buffalo Board of Education can improve communications, tighten financial controls and ensure the collection of all state aid for building projects and student programs.
The district agreed with all but two recommendations. It disagreed with suggestions that urged better communications between the district staff and the school board, and between the district and the State Education Department saying it already does both.
Ultimately, the responsibility for overseeing many of the audit's recommendations will fall on a different superintendent. In the three months since the draft audit was released, a new school board was seated and the already-strained relations between Harris and a majority of the board deteriorated further. Last month, in response to pressures from the board, Harris decided not to seek a renewal of his four-year contract next July.
State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said the recent changes in the district's leadership bode well for the recommendations in the audit. On Wednesday, the new school board appointed Rajni Shah as associate superintendent for finance, and Marion Canedo as associate superintendent for instruction.
The audit "provides an opportunity for a fresh start," Hoyt said. "We must restore confidence in the Buffalo schools. If the school administration and the school board adopt these recommendations, there will without doubt be a greater sense of accountability."