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No increase from city in new budget for Buffalo schools

Despite Mayor Byron W. Brown’s expressed willingness to assume control of the troubled Buffalo Public Schools, the city is not giving the district any more money to work with in 2015-16.

The city’s base contribution for the next school year – $70.3 million – remains unchanged for the ninth year in a row.

In fact, though Brown allocated $400,000 in city money each of the last two years to pay for some instrumental music teachers, city officials informed the district in March that the special grant will not be renewed. The district is reassuming the cost.

The city’s contribution is only one element of an $825.8 million general fund budget that the School Board is expected to approve at Wednesday night’s meeting. Thanks in large part to extra state money, the budget would increase overall spending by $19 million, or 2 percent.

The district will spend between $21,000 and $25,000 per student in the next school year, depending on how calculations are done. But the city’s contribution, as a percentage, continues to shrink as the district’s overall spending figure grows and even as there is a push for mayoral control of the district. This year, Buffalo’s contribution stands at less than 9 percent.

Unlike previous years when the district was looking at layoffs, this budget would add 260 full-time positions, most of them teachers.

The increased spending includes the addition of $11 million for special education because elaborate plans to restructure and reduce spending for those services last year never materialized, costing the district millions in unanticipated costs. Many of the full-time positions being added to next year’s budget include special-education teachers whose positions were supposed to have been eliminated, but never were.

When adding the general fund budget to the grants budget, which provides schools an additional $117.2 million to cover everything from prekindergarten classes to school turnaround efforts, spending will reach $943 million next school year.

Aside from maintaining special-education positions, the funding boost will support the opening and expansion of two academic programs, more physical-education classes, smaller kindergarten classes and more support to English language learners.

“The Board of Education, by consensus, wanted a shift of new resources and a redistribution of existing resources into classrooms and into buildings to the greatest extent possible,” said interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie.

That’s what this budget accomplishes, he said.

The new positions added to the budget include 159 teachers and 88 teacher assistants and aides. Not all additional teaching positions actually represent new hires, however. That figure includes 93 special-education positions, most of which were supposed to have been cut last year as part of a $7.4 million cost-saving restructuring effort.

Ogilvie and Chief Financial Officer Barbara J. Smith said they had no idea that the restructuring failed to occur until schools were opening last fall. A “void in Central Office leadership” resulted in only a fraction of the anticipated savings being realized, they said.

“The Special Education Department must not have been fully apprised of the budget implications because they carried on with business as usual,” Ogilvie said.

Other budget highlights include:

• $2 million to hire 19 additional kindergarten teachers and bring class sizes down to 20 to 25 kindergarten students per class, as opposed to upward of 30 students. This was an initiative started this school year in response to parent and teacher complaints.

• $1 million to hire 11 new gym teachers as part of a five-year plan to eventually hire 48 such teachers and finally bring the district into compliance with the state’s physical education requirements.

• $1.4 million to expand Emerson School of Hospitality to an additional site at the vacant School 28. The expansion would enroll 150 additional ninth-graders there this fall. Those students are slated to move to a more permanent location in 2016-17.

• $1.6 million to establish a Newcomer Academy at Lafayette High School, which would accommodate new international students in grades seven and up who are enrolling in the district with limited English proficiency.

In a related matter, the district would also spend an additional $1.1 million for the equivalent of 24 full-time staff – teachers, translators, multilingual aides and assistants, as well as one Central Office position – to meet the state’s new requirements that all English language learners be provided equal access to all school programs and services.

A detailed breakdown of exactly which teaching positions would be increases or decreases, and the staffing levels of individual schools was not available because, as is typically the case, a number of schools failed to submit their estimates to the district by the requested deadline.

Smith, the chief financial officer who will be leaving the same day as Ogilvie at the end of June, said the district was aided by a $20.6 million increase in state funding, as well as a $7 million reduction in employee pension costs. The budget includes a $3 million contingency for unforeseen expenses, and for the first time since 2008, the district is not projecting future deficits.

“I characterize it overall as a good budget, and a good starting point for the new administration July 1,” Smith said. “It gives them some key initiatives that they can build upon.”

For more budget information, visit the School Zone blog at email: