Moments after affirming its plan to build six new schools over the next 10 years, the Buffalo Board of Education was told Wednesday night that it is facing a $50 million budget gap for the coming school year.
The gap raises serious questions about the district's ability to help students meet state graduation requirements, pursue internal reforms recommended in two highly critical reviews of district operations and successfully complete its $1 billion plan to build the new schools and renovate 80 existing schools.
Though the bulk of the funding for the building plan will come from the state, it is critical for the board to contribute some of the local funding directly, said Rajni Shah, the school district's associate superintendent for finance. But the proposed budget contains no money for the project, which is considered crucial for the future of the district and the city.
"(The building plan) looks good on paper, but when the rubber meets the road, I'm very cautious about this," Shah said.
Both Erie County and Buffalo have pledged $5 million toward the local share of the building plan, which could total $185 million or more. The city and county contributions will allow the district to pursue an initial phase of well over $100 million in work.
And while much of the remaining local share is expected to come from creative financing methods -- such as energy savings or lease-back arrangements for schools built by private firms -- the board will need to come up with some of the funding out of its own budget, Shah said.
The board Wednesday voted to pursue construction of six new schools costing $300 million.
The first would be a prekindergarten-through-grade-12 Olmsted Magnet School at Buffalo Psychiatric Center's H.H. Richardson Complex, which would open in September 2002. Olmsted is now divided among three schools.
A school housing prekindergarten through grade 8 in the Main-LaSalle area would be the next one built, though an opening date has not been set. New housing near Bennett High School and severe overcrowding in schools serving that part of the city make that school a high priority, said Paul G. Buchanan, School Board president.
The other new schools would be a career and technical high school at Fillmore and Kensington avenues; an elementary school at Broadway and Miller Avenue; an early elementary school at South Park Avenue and Okell Street, the current site of the South Buffalo Charter School; and a Waterfront High School at Carolina and Fourth streets.
But $481.1 million in projected board revenues for next year not only includes no money for the building plan, but -- at this point -- fails to cover the restoration of art, music and physical education for third-graders; raises for teachers and other district employees; and help for failing schools that face possible closing by the state.
Funds are also not available for mandated payments to charter schools; academic intervention services for students in danger of failing to graduate; additional security officers and electronic monitoring devices; capital projects not covered by the $1 million plan; and funds needed to bring special-education services in line with state regulations.
Shah on Wednesday projected revenues of $481.1 million, down $1.8 million from last year. Simply continuing current programs would cost an extra $20.7 million, or an increase of 4.3 percent over last year. An additional $27.9 million in new spending would bring the increase to about 10 percent.
About $40 million of the $50 million gap consists of spending that is either required by contracts or is mandated by the state, Buchanan said.
The board decided to seek a $10 million increase from the city and another $40 million from the state in intensive lobbying that will begin next week in Albany.
Eighty percent of the district's revenues already come from the state, and Gov. George E. Pataki's proposed budget would provide the district with $387.8 million, an increase of about $1.5 million.
State aid is generally increased dramatically by the State Legislature, but board members Wednesday expressed dismay over the size of the gap.
"I really don't think we're going to be able to rub the genie this time and come up with $50 million," said Florence D. Johnson, the board's Ferry District representative. She said that a shortfall is likely and that a contingency budget should be drawn up to deal with it.
Shah said that state legislators have been highly successful in securing money for the district, but that they complained at a meeting several months ago that Albany has been taking a greater responsibility for Buffalo schools each year while the city's contribution remains relatively static.
The city currently provides $49.6 million, or 10.3 percent of the total budget. Shah projects a $3.8 million drop in city funding.
"Whenever I go to City Hall, they say, 'We don't have the money,' " Shah said. "If we don't get that local support, we are in deep, deep trouble."