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Increased payments to charters bite into aid to Buffalo schools

It took some trimming – a few million dollars here, a half-million dollars there – but the Buffalo Public Schools were able to close a projected $10.2 million deficit and come up with a balanced budget for next year.

The gap was closed in large part by coordinating start times at some schools under receivership, allowing Superintendent Kriner Cash to make that move unilaterally and save more than $4 million next year, according to district officials.

The district also was able to make cuts in travel and overtime for next year, as well as other discretionary funding outside the classroom, said Geoffrey Pritchard, chief financial officer for the school system.

In addition, the district is negotiating with Blue Cross Blue Shield to increase the rebate the district gets on prescription drugs, Pritchard said.

"It's a lot of little things that balance it out," Pritchard said, during a presentation to the School Board on Wednesday.

The schools plan to use $22 million of its reserve fund, including money that was set aside to settle labor agreements, including the new Buffalo Teachers Federation contract.

The district also got a commitment from Mayor Byron W. Brown to increase school funding from the City of Buffalo – which has stayed at a flat $70.3 million for the past decade – by a half-million dollars next year.

The mayor this week promised the school district an additional $500,000 a year for the next five years, which was less than the district was asking for.

Buffalo schools grapple with $10.2 million budget deficit

Lawmakers in Albany, meanwhile, have been trying to help, but not by allocating more money to the district – by changing the method of payment to charter schools.

The state budget included a net increase of $500 per pupil for charter schools next year, which requires home districts to pay that money to charters up front and then get reimbursed by the state the following year.

The problem is cuts into the operating aid school districts were counting on using next year. That wasn’t the intent, particularly for high-need districts, like Buffalo, that have the majority of charter schools, said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo.

On top of that, the number of Buffalo children attending charter schools is expected to rise to about 9,000 students next year, up from about 8,200, Pritchard said.

Ryan – along with fellow Assembly Democrats Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Robin Schimminger and Monica Wallace – joined a contingent of state legislators proposing the state, not the district, send the funding directly to the charter schools instead.

That alone would free up more than $8 million for Buffalo, Ryan said.

“It doesn’t sound that odd until you realize the implications in a place like Buffalo or Lackawanna is, ‘I don’t have the money to front,’ ” Ryan said. “We’re telling a handful of districts they cannot spend their educational dollars for their students this year, but every other district can.”

Cash said the way it works right now pits the needs of the city’s youth against each other. He commended the delegation for trying to correct that situation.

“Funding education must not be an either-or proposition,” Cash said. “Traditional school districts must not be forced to reduce services to their students to fund charter schools.”

While the district is encouraged by the efforts of the local delegation, school officials are not counting on it to balance the district’s budget for next year.

“We know they’re working hard on this,” Pritchard said, “but we don't know if it will be resolved in time to include in the budget."

“We can't rely on one significant, but uncertain, item to balance the budget," Pritchard said. "There are several areas we're looking at."

The amount the district will pay to charters for tuition expenses will rise 13 percent next year to $124 million, he said.

Charter school tuition was a key factor driving the deficit, along with increases in teacher salaries related to the new Buffalo Teachers Federation contract, and the superintendent's plan for school improvement.

The School Board will be asked to approve the draft budget May 17. The major part of the budget – the general fund – is $894.2 million.

Administrators still project a cumulative deficit over the next four years if the district doesn’t reduce expenses or increase revenues. The last projection was $116 million over a four-year period, but that number will likely go down as the district looks for new cost savings.

"I'm going to be looking for $20 million I can do sooner than later," Cash said. "And then that will carry through the next few years."

Cash said he is also tackling the revenue side. He said he is preparing eight grant applications to eight foundations to help fund academic enrichment in the district.

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