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Editorial: School budget problems put reforms at risk

The Buffalo School District settled one long-running problem last year when it reached a contract agreement with teachers. But that agreement only deepened the district’s financial difficulties. The $10.2 million budget gap for the coming year balloons in the next two years, creating a total $116 million deficit if new money isn’t found or expenses aren’t reduced.

Reducing expenses on that scale is likely to endanger gains the district has begun making under the leadership of Superintendent Kriner Cash. Non-teaching jobs could stand a trim (the increase in district staff has outpaced the growth in student enrollment, according to Cash), but that wouldn’t be nearly enough. About the only real chance of a rescue will have to come from the local state delegation.

None of this worry would have been necessary but for the overconfidence that city and state officials would save the day. It is a difficult situation that can be traced back to the new teacher contract and Cash’s ambitious plan to put the school system on the right track.

The graduation rate is up to 63 percent from below 50 a few years ago. The superintendent wants to reach 70 percent in 2019. It is an attainable goal, but getting there is coming at a high cost.

Cash did manage to reach agreement on the first teacher contract in 12 years. However, it included raises that now look like they were too rich for the district’s blood. Two of nine School Board members, Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino, voted against the contract. They questioned the escalating cost of the contract without offsetting savings, and now look prescient. Quinn warned of a perfect financial storm that could “force the district to roll back improvements like smaller class sizes because it has used up too much of its reserves,” as reported in The News in December.

There was no way the district could afford to pay for that contract on its own. Balancing the books down the road relied on big increases from the city and especially the state. There has been more money, but not enough.

Cash wanted state lawmakers to fork over another $65 million on top of last year’s total of $721 million. The state came up with “only” $27.1 million more.

The state contribution dwarfs the $70 million a year the city has been providing for the past decade. Cash wanted city taxpayers to up that total by $8.5 million. Instead, Mayor Byron Brown found an additional $500,000. The mayor pointed to the teacher contract and made the valid point that he had never signed a contract the city can’t afford.

Cash is now tasked with finding a way to close a gap that will become a chasm in the next few years. Some possibilities include scaling back plans to reduce class sizes and paring the community schools program that has become the centerpiece of his reform efforts. That would hurt education efforts just as Cash is showing results.

The poor state of Buffalo schools is a drag on the city’s future. The education system has to improve to the point that young families don’t continue to steer away from the city for fear that their children’s education will be substandard.

This is no time to break off reform efforts. A solution will have to be found.

 

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