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Buffalo School Board delays vote on budget over staffing

The Buffalo Public Schools have added nearly as many staff members as students over the last five years.

The School Board on Wednesday delayed its vote on a proposed budget that would bring the number of staff positions to 5,476, which would be 432 more than five years ago.

Over the same time period, student enrollment went up by 663, according to data produced by the district.

Now, some School Board members question whether those resources could be put to new priorities, such as lowering class sizes and adding reading support in the early grade levels.

“Let’s start with the core educational program and consider everything else an add-on,” said board member Larry Quinn. “When you start digging into these school-based budgets, something isn’t right.”

School officials say the staff increase is because the district created and paid for new positions with grants, and then kept those jobs on the payroll after the funding stream expired. That shifted the cost burden to the district’s operations fund.

During the five-year period, the number of grant-funded positions decreased by 201, as the number of jobs paid for out of the operations fund swelled by 643.

The bulk of the new positions were teachers and aides, with 450 and 137 new jobs, respectively.

The staff increases – which cost about $36.4 million – have raised concerns as the district grapples with a structural budget deficit and struggles to find money for new priorities such as lower class sizes and reading teachers. Since teachers need to be certified in the area they work, the district cannot just reassign staff members to new responsibilities.

Although the district’s revenues will be up by $20.6 million next year thanks to a bump from the state, its expenses also increased by $22.6 million, largely due to increasing health care and pension costs.

And that was before figuring out how to pay for Superintendent Kriner Cash’s plan for turning around student performance. His plan, dubbed a “New Education Bargain,” calls for lowering class sizes, focusing on early literacy and developing community schools. Cash was not at Wednesday’s meeting.

District officials originally estimated that Cash’s plan would cost $40.5 million to fully implement in the coming school year.

The district came up with a list of potential cuts, including changes to the high school schedule and transportation, but ultimately did not pursue them, in part because many would have required changes to the union contract.

Instead, they opted to put up a $17.5 million “down payment” for the first phase of the plan and gradually roll it out over the next few years.

That will help reduce kindergarten and first-grade class sizes to less than 20 students per room. In second grade and up, however, some class sizes could remain in the high 20s.

The district also continues to rely on its savings to balance the budget. The working budget calls for using $11.9 million of the $52.1 million that it has available.

“If we want to have a no fund balance budget, we have to make $11.9 million in cuts,” said budget director Geoffrey F. Pritchard. “We’ve had two meetings already, and no one really wanted to get into ‘Are we going to lay people off?’ ”

As of now, the district is looking at a preliminary spending plan of $855 million for the 2016-17 school year, up by about $29 million from this year.

Board members also expressed concerns that district staff did not get them the most updated version of the budget until the day of the meeting.

“This is the budget. Whatever is in this that came in the last couple days, I need to know what it is,” said board member Mary Ruth Kapsiak. “I can’t vote on something I haven’t read.”