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Honors in the schools In a reversal of fortunes, Buffalo goes from bad to best

There are so many things a modern urban public school district cannot control: Its shrinking tax base, the unfunded mandates imposed by the state and federal governments, the large percentage of its students who come from poverty-stricken or even violent homes, the rival demands on students made by everything from after-school jobs to electronic playthings.

One thing a school district can control is how it manages its money, no matter how meager, to deliver services, no matter how stretched.

The Buffalo Public Schools, only six years ago held up as a horribly bad example of fiscal management, now have been declared a "top performer" in measures of financial management and accountability.

The organization making that declaration, the Council of the Great City Schools, is the very group that came to town in the year 2000 to examine the school district's many woes and make recommendations for improvement. More than a year later, a follow-up council review found that the financial management regime was lagging the pack among the Buffalo schools' various operations, doing such a poor job that it seriously weakened the chances that the schools would succeed in any other areas.

This year, though, the Buffalo schools have -- along with public school systems in Broward County, Fla., and Anchorage, Alaska -- been picked out as the three big-city school systems that have done the best job, and made the most improvements, in the efficiency of their financial management.

The council, an association of 66 big-city school systems, exists to help those systems succeed by, among other things, surveying their own members and bringing in outside experts to figure out the best practices of big-city school management and make them known to all schools. It is an organization devoted to public school systems but, given the way it blistered Buffalo's public schools a few years ago, does not exist only to say reassuring things.

When it comes to financial management, the council approach is not only to pick the brains of its own members, but to consult with public finance experts and bond rating agencies. The measuring sticks so produced -- such things as staying within budgets, avoiding layoffs and other shocks to the system, accurately predicting costs and revenues -- are tasks where Buffalo's schools have been found to be at least much improved, if not downright exemplary.

Schools' Chief Financial Officer Gary Crosby, along with Superintendent James A. Williams, are the first to admit that the schools have a lot of work to do in many areas. In fact, Crosby accepts the honor merely as an acknowledgment that the district's financial management has gone from mediocre to good, and that great is still a goal to be reached.

As long as that's the star guiding them, and as long as scrupulous oversight continues, it is a goal that is attainable. And the work so far deserves praise.

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