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Buffalo’s per-student spending is 5th in U.S.

Per-student spending in the Buffalo Public Schools is among the highest in the country, with new data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau showing that the city ranks fifth out of the country’s 217 school districts with more than 30,000 students.

Two of New York’s other large urban districts – Rochester and New York City – surpassed Buffalo in the Top 5 for spending, helping make the state’s per-student costs the highest in the country.

The Census Bureau reports that Buffalo spent $18,773 per student in 2013, a figure that factors in revenues, expenditures, debt and assets. Rochester and New York City spent $20,333 and $20,331 respectively.

“When it comes to school spending New York is like an enormous Lake Wobegon,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center. “All of the districts spend way beyond the national average.”

At $19,818, New York State’s per-student spending far outpaced the national figure of $10,700. Utah came in at the bottom with $6,555 per student.

McMahon also pointed out that even New York districts with the lowest per-student costs spend more than the national average, and the state spends far more than others with similar education lobbies and union power.

The high spending, however, doesn’t guarantee better results, especially in large urban districts such as Buffalo and Rochester that consistently fall among the lowest-performing in the state for graduation rates and standardized test scores.

It is difficult to compare student achievement across state lines, but Buffalo likely falls at the bottom of the pack, with the most recent tests results showing that just 12 percent of students were deemed proficient in reading and 13 percent in math. Graduation rates stubbornly hover around 50 percent.

“I would just say that many of us have always questioned the return on investment,” said Buffalo School Board President James M. Sampson. “I think the real question is not how much do you spend per student, but how much do you spend in the classroom.”

A district administrator was not available Tuesday to comment.

Jenny Sedlis of Students First, a pro-reform group, said the report proves that “money alone cannot solve the education crisis in New York State. We need fundamental reform.”

The Census Bureau numbers differ from ones recently released by the state Education Department because the federal government uses a different methodology to compare school districts across the country. The report also uses data from the 2013 fiscal year, whereas the state figures project next school year’s spending.

In urban districts, the high per-student spending is driven in part by large populations of at-risk students, who generate millions of dollars in federal funding for schools. That includes extra money earmarked for poor students, those with disabilities and those who are learning English.

The state’s high per-student spending is also fueled by higher salaries and lucrative benefits, with staff costs making up a large portion of school district budgets. In recent years, school districts in New York have been hit by the rising cost of pensions and benefits, particularly for the growing ranks of retirees.

Since 2010, the Buffalo School District’s health insurance costs for both employees and retirees increased by 13 percent. The amount it contributes to pensions nearly doubled.

“In general, there’s something about the way we run our schools, and it’s primarily instructional staffing and salaries,” McMahon said. “The salaries are high and the health benefit levels tend to be on par with the most generous in the country.”

Philip Rumore, Buffalo Teachers Federation president, acknowledged that the state spends a significant amount of money on education but pointed to a salary gap between city teachers and their suburban counterparts. The union contends that Buffalo teachers make $20,000 less than teachers in the suburbs. The union also contends that it takes Buffalo teachers much longer – 27 years – to reach their maximum salary, something that affects their pensions if they retire early.

“We’re $20,000 behind everyone else, so it’s not our salaries driving the expenses,” Rumore said.

He also pointed out that because of the district’s geographic size and school choice policy, it spends more on transportation.

Buffalo’s per-student spending was surpassed by several smaller Western New York school districts, including West Valley, Franklinville, Lackawanna, Gowanda, North Collins and Evans-Brant.

In smaller districts, however, high per-student spending is largely driven by low student enrollment while some fixed costs cannot be cut proportionately. North Collins, for example, has just 600 students.

Clarence, with 4,813 students, had the lowest per-student spending in the area at $12,872.

“These statistics provide researchers, policymakers and the public with a picture of the nation’s public school system education revenue and spending,” said Stephen M. Wheeler, an analyst with the Census Bureau’s Educational Finance Branch.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com