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District leaders look for boost for Buffalo schools in state budget

As state lawmakers move closer to finalizing a new budget for the coming year, it looks as though the Buffalo Public Schools could get a big lift in funding.

That will go a long way helping pay for the ambitious education agenda put forth by Superintendent Kriner Cash, as well as the cost of a the new teacher contract approved in October.

Part of the bump will likely come through funding streams targeted for specific programs such as community schools, support for students learning English and for pre-kindergarten, as well as an increase in the district's base foundation aid.

The district could then redirect money slated for those things in its general budget to other expenses, including teacher salaries or lowering class sizes.

Lawmakers were still battling over the final details Saturday afternoon, but are expected to reach an agreement soon.

Lawmakers hanging out at Capitol, waiting for state budget deal

"All education comes down to is how much is everyone going to get," said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo. "It's suburban versus urban, Democrats versus Republicans, the Long Island Senate versus the rest of the world. It's complicated, and until it's done it's just speculation."

Assemblyman Sean Ryan

Late last week the battle over education funding was delaying the entire state budget. Much of the debate stemmed from a push by Senate Republicans to increase funding for charter schools, which would pull money from the urban districts where they typically operate. The charter school plan would cost the Buffalo schools $14 million.

Although it is unlikely the charter school proposal will get enough support to be included in the budget, it still offers a way for Senate Republicans to counter the Democrats' effort to increase funding going into traditional public school system.

Still, on Friday Ryan echoed optimism that he and his colleagues would be able to secure a substantial boost in targeted funding for the city, which will help Cash and district leaders narrow a gap that was projected early in the budget season.

A four-year financial plan developed by district staff showed that school leaders must come up with $162 million over the next four years to maintain a balanced budget. The plan calls for covering about half of that with reserve funds, including a pot of money set aside to settling contracts. That leaves $77 million the School Board will have to cover with either cuts or new revenue over the next four years.

Cash initially asked state lawmakers for a $65 million increase over last year's $721 million allocation, with some of that money earmarked for the district's general expenses and another chunk for special programs. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had already included a $24 million increase in his initial budget allocation.

Since then, based on cost estimate adjustments, the district has lowered its request to the state to $52 million.

Cash also wanted city taxpayers to contribute an extra $8.5 million, after staying flat at $70 million for the past decade.

Throughout the budget talks, some local leaders have scoffed at Cash's request, blaming the new teacher contract he negotiated for driving up expenses. The contract, which awarded teachers hefty raises, will cost will $98.8 million over the next three years.

Mayor Byron W. Brown has not committed to increasing the city's contribution to the district, and the mayor himself recently pinned blame for the district's financial woes on the teacher contract. In a meeting with the Buffalo News editorial board, Brown remarked that he had never signed a contract he can't afford.

Sen. Chris Jacobs

That sentiment was echoed by Republican Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, a former member of the Buffalo School Board, who said local delegates were having a hard time convincing their colleagues to sign off on more funding for a district that is already the most heavily subsidized in New York.

"This level of funding increase would be a major challenge any year, but I feel this year there is a credibility challenge with Buffalo Schools," Jacobs wrote in an e-mail. "The pushback I'm getting is a feeling that BPS (board of Ed/Supt) signed a major new contract with no idea how they were going to pay for it and now they're expecting the state to pick up the tab... it's been a hard lift to make the case for a such a dramatic increase for BPS at the expense of other districts."

Despite their opposition to a hefty increase for the Buffalo schools, Jacobs and his fellow Senate Republicans will likely be outmatched by Democrats in the Assembly with whom the local delegates yield substantial influence.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, has seniority, warm relations with Cuomo and is one of only two Assembly members from the Buffalo area who chairs a committee – Governmental Operations. Peoples-Stokes also has sizable influence as one of the few upstate members of the Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Legislative Caucus, a politically influential group whose members include Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who counts the Buffalo Democrat as among his political allies in Albany.

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