When Buffalo school leaders held a community presentation to update city residents about the district’s 2014-15 budget Thursday night, they reserved the Bennett High School auditorium.
The chief financial officer prepared 30 PowerPoint slides. A staffer sat by the doors to hand out index cards and pens to anyone who might have a question.
Three people showed up.
Thursday’s event highlights the inability of the Buffalo Public Schools to engage residents who feel disconnected from the district’s budget planning process.
Compared with Rochester and Syracuse, Buffalo has the latest budget development process and offers the fewest chances for community input on a spending plan that is currently pushing $818 million in general fund money. That figure excludes another $115 million in grants.
“Why would you be part of a process that has no meaningful engagement?” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “It’s all symbolic.”
The Buffalo school district has not yet produced a balanced budget proposal for public consideration, though Chief Financial Officer Barbara Smith said she hopes to have one ready by sometime this week. Currently, the district is facing a $12.6 million deficit.
By comparison, Syracuse released a completed budget proposal Feb. 12, and Rochester submitted its draft proposal March 24.
After those budget proposals were introduced, both Syracuse and Rochester scheduled a series of public hearings even though the state’s “Big Five” school districts – Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers and New York City – aren’t required to hold any.
The Syracuse school district scheduled three public hearings on the budget. Rochester scheduled two. Buffalo never schedules any.
The only public hearing on the school district’s budget is scheduled by the Buffalo Common Council the week of May 5, the same night the budget will be formally introduced by the superintendent.
“I think the lack of the engagement in the budget is symbolic of the lack of ability for the district to connect with the citizens of this community, whether it be parents or the average taxpayer,” said School Board member James Sampson.
To be fair to the Buffalo district, administrators say the district is engaged in a school-based budgeting process that gives stakeholders more say in budget planning at the building level.
In addition, Buffalo administrators prefer to delay any budget proposal until the state releases its education funding amounts for the new fiscal year starting April 1 so the district knows exactly how much revenue it has to work with, instead of guessing.
“That’s a very legitimate issue,” said William Ansbrow, chief financial officer for the Rochester school district.
But that’s also the opposite approach to the one that Rochester takes.
In that school district, which is closest in size to Buffalo in the state, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas held five budget “open houses” with the community prior to the release of the 2014-15 budget proposal.
One such event was part of a parent advisory committee meeting, Ansbrow said. Another was attached to a prekindergarten and kindergarten registration event for parents.
The president of the Rochester School Board also held three special budget committee meetings as public meetings, separate from the superintendent’s, Ansbrow said. Two more public hearings were scheduled after the superintendent’s budget proposal was released.
“We’re really transparent,” he said.
The Rochester district released its draft budget in March, a huge document that includes detailed budget breakdowns for every individual school in the district. Administrators then scheduled three budget work sessions.
Ansbrow said he has also received 160 questions from board members so far.
In Syracuse, the school district drafts its preliminary budget in February, the earliest of the Big Five districts. Three public hearings were scheduled before the School Board submitted its budget to the mayor March 20.
Suzanne Slack, the chief financial officer for the Syracuse district, said the reason for the early budget timetable is because the city’s budget timetable is earlier than other cities. For them, starting the budget process early is a matter of necessity, particularly since the City of Syracuse has more authority over the school district’s budget than exists in Rochester or Buffalo.
Both Ansbrow and Slack acknowledged that developing their budget proposals so early can result in last-minute headaches if the state allocates a much different sum than what they had assumed would be given.
They also said participation in public hearings can vary, from less than a dozen to a packed house. This year, for instance, Slack said no one showed up at the three public hearings on the Syracuse school budget.
“If I’m cutting cheerleading, football and nursing, then it’s standing room only,” she said.
But both financial officers also said their superintendents and school board members consider the efforts to involve the public to be too important to ignore.
That culture of public involvement in the budget process, even if the public doesn’t always respond, does not appear to have taken hold to any great degree in Buffalo, though Chief Financial Officer Smith said she has been as open and forthcoming as possible with anyone who asks for information.
“I think there’s probably some confusion over what the expectations are versus what we are presenting,” Smith said. “I have been presenting budgeting forecasts since October. I don’t know where that breakdown is.”
Budget information is posted to the district’s website on the Finance Department page, she said, and public information is regularly presented at the board’s Finance and Operations Committee meetings.
She said she was disappointed that so few showed up at the public budget meeting Thursday.
“If people were coming to the meetings, looking online for our presentations, I think the information is there,” she said. “I truly have a desire to educate people ... If people feel there’s something we’re not providing, I need to know what that is.”
Ansbrow and Slack both gave unsolicited praise to Smith for her work in Buffalo. They also said that when it comes to how long and how transparent the budget process is, it is the district’s leadership that calls the shots.
Parent advocate Radford said the district is welcome to make budget presentations to the District Parent Coordinating Council, which has representatives from dozens of city schools, and at scheduled parent assemblies, but the district hasn’t tried doing either.
Common Council Member Demone Smith, chairman of the Council’s Education Committee, also said it would be helpful if the district involved city leaders during its budget planning.
“I think everybody would like to see something earlier,” he said.
Buffalo school district leaders regularly complain this time of year that the city contributes only 7.5 percent of its total revenues to the Buffalo Public Schools, the smallest percentage among the Big Five districts. That $70 million accounts for only 9 percent of the district’s general fund revenue.
In contrast, Rochester contributes $119 million. That equates to 15 percent of the city’s total revenues and 18 percent of the district’s general fund budget.
Demone Smith said he sees that Big Five contribution bar chart every year at budget time. But without more useful budget interaction between the city and the district, it’s hard to justify the city providing more revenue than it already does.
“Fifty-two percent of all the money we collect in property taxes goes to the Buffalo Public School system,” he said. “Any increases have to stay forever.”
Finally, parents have said they would find it easier to be more involved in the budget process if they saw budget breakdowns for their individual schools. Rochester already does that, and Syracuse hopes to start doing it next year.
There are not yet plans to provide any such breakdowns in Buffalo.
Several Buffalo School Board members acknowledged that improvements need to be made to the district’s budgeting process so that the community doesn’t feel left out of a spending plan that is twice the size of the city’s own general fund.
“There’s no question it could be much better,” said board member Carl Paladino.
Sampson said it is a matter he hopes a newly elected board will tackle in the fall.
“With the new board,” he said, “that’s one of the questions we’ve got to resolve.”
The current board will have a few more opportunities to discuss the 2014-15 proposed budget before its adoption May 14.
The board will have its next regular meeting April 23, participate in a special budget workshop April 25 and review the proposed budget again April 30 during a Finance and Operations Committee meeting. The Common Council will hold a public hearing on the district budget the week of May 5.