Mayor Masiello and other city and school officials voiced strong support for cost-saving measures proposed Wednesday for Buffalo schools. But the embryonic reform effort took a potentially serious blow when the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation charged that secret deliberations "taint the whole report."
Those reactions came shortly after the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission released 34 recommendations designed to save the city schools $188.5 million over the next five years.
"Obviously, it substantiates what I've been saying all along, that there can be substantial internal savings without sacrificing academic programs and extracurricular activities," Masiello said.
"We're going to have to do more with less, we're going to have to economize and we're going to have to share," Masiello said. "This document will begin to help us in that mission. We must move forward quickly to begin to implement some of these recommendations."
School Superintendent Albert Thompson, two School Board members and a Common Council member also made supportive comments.
But BTF President Philip Rumore criticized the commission for what he described as secretive deliberations that shut out input from Buffalo teachers.
"The entire report is under a tremendously dark cloud because of the secrecy," Rumore said. "It really taints the whole report. We're starting with great suspicion."
BTF reaction is considered important to the reform plan put together by local business leaders because many of the 34 recommendations would require renegotiating labor contracts.
Rumore's comments contrasted with the initial reactions of school officials. Although they largely declined comment on the specifics of the 221-page report, all said the recommendations should be given careful consideration.
"We hope this report will be a usable document that can help make the district more effective and efficient," said Thompson.
"There are going to be lots of constituents very upset about some of these things, but I'm looking forward to an open dialogue and calm, cool deliberations in which everyone comes out a winner," said Marlies A. Wesolowski, East District School Board member.
"At some point, we have to stop pointing fingers and placing blame and work together constructively for everyone's benefit."
Mrs. Wesolowski said the report should help the School Board deal with a fiscal crisis that threatens to dramatically cut staff, academic programs, interscholastic sports and extracurricular activities.
"I think we're heading in the right direction," she said. "Some of the things in the report are certainly do-able and should be explored."
Rumore said Buffalo teachers were denied an opportunity to express their views when the commission refused a December request from the BTF for a list of 115 volunteers who worked on the report.
Those volunteers are listed in the final report.
In addition, Rumore said, he was not provided a copy of the report prior to its public release. He was instead allowed to read and make suggestions on a draft portion of part of the report in the presence of a commission representative.
"I can't even talk about it because I don't have the document," Rumore said Wednesday. "That may be the way they do things in business, but not in the public sector. It's wrong."
Bruce A. Boissonnault, a Greater Buffalo Partnership official who served as project director, said the commission's approach was designed to keep the study moving smoothly and equitably.
"Our focus was to recommend ways to deliver quality education for the children of our city effectively, without the influence of special interest groups," he said.
Rumore was briefed on a draft copy of the report earlier this week in the same way School Board members, Common Council members and school officials were informed and consulted, Boissonnault said.
Thompson said school officials are already pursuing some of the recommendations, including cuts in administrative staff.
The same commission two years ago prepared a report on city finances that became the focus of debate on reform of City Hall.
North District Common Council Member Dale L. Zuchlewski said the recommendations on schools could have a greater impact because they rely less on union cooperation.
"There are a number of things they (school officials) can do on their own," said Zuchlewski, who is also a member of the Financial Plan Commission. "It's going to be up to parents and School Board members to make sure they at least look closely at these things."
School Board Member John C. Doyle, a frequent critic of the school administration, said he will actively support many of the recommendations.
"Historically, I have found that nothing has been done with previous reports," Doyle said. "But I know many of these recommendations are right, and I'm going to press to have them implemented. If they (other board members) don't want to do it, shame on them."
On Wednesday evening, Board President Donald A. Van Every referred the report to the district staff. He asked that the staff recommend to the board those proposals that would be appropriate for the 1995-96 budget.
Van Every said the most frightening message of the report is that even if all the cost-saving measures were undertaken, the commission is projecting a $51 million shortfall over five years.
"People need to be aware of how severely underfunded we are," he said. "Even if we were able to take advantage of the full $190 million in recommendations, and there are some contractually we can't do unilaterally, we would still be very far behind the eight ball.
"We're the deliberative body," Van Every said. "They are advisers who are trying to help us in what they think is public business. I agree it is public business. We will make the final judgment about which of these recommendations should be undertaken."
The commission will leave it to school officials and the public to push for reform, said Charles M. Mitschow, chairman of the Western Region of Marine Midland Bank and commission co-chairman.
"We've put out a road map we think is helpful," he said. "I don't think we want to launch an aggressive program to say: 'This is the only way to get things done.' "
The entire package, and not just portions, should be implemented, said Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and president of M & T Bank and the other co-chairman.
"If we don't realize those savings, we're in trouble as a school system, we're in trouble as a city and we're in trouble as a community," he said.
Staff Reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this story.