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POLITICIANS, SCHOOL LEADERS SHORTCHANGE STUDENTS LACK OF CASH, WASTED FUNDING HURT PROGRAMS

You need to look no further than Arlie Schwan's shop class at Poplar Academy to know the city's schools are cash poor.

The storage cabinets are rusty, the drill presses old, the work benches scavenged from another school. The newest piece of equipment is a 15-year-old band saw that hasn't worked for more than a year.

"When I started in 1968, I got $1,200 a year in supplies," Schwan said. "Now it's the 1994-95 school year, and I'm getting $1,200. It's a joke."

Blame it on city politicians who made miserly investments in the city's schoolchildren over the past generation.

Also blame it on school leaders who squander millions of dollars the district receives.

A Buffalo News analysis of the school district's finances shows:

Buffalo invests much less in its public schools than do most big cities.

School districts in big cities on average receive close to half their operating funds from local government; in Buffalo, it's less than a quarter.

The district doesn't make the most of the $430 million it receives from the city, state and federal governments.

It provides retired employees with costly health benefits not found in other districts and has apparently squandered generous state allocations of money targeted for classroom supplies. And that's just the beginning: A report issued last week by the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission recommended 34 ways the district could save $189 million the next five years.

Programs not directly tied to the classroom -- but especially important for city youth -- have been hurt the most because of a lack of money. Services that provide social workers, guidance counselors and the like are much scarcer in the city, as are after-school programs such as academic clubs and sports teams.

Education suffers as a result.

"At a time when we need more resources, we're given less and less and less to work with," said School 12 Principal Marion Mayfield. "It really makes you wonder where people's priorities are."

Poor city support

Any way you count it, the city's financial support of its schools lags.

In 47 big-city districts surveyed by the Council of Great City Schools, local governments provided their schools with 42 percent of their operating funds.

In Buffalo, local governments provide the public schools with just 22 percent of operating funds -- and nearly one-third of that comes from the county sales tax.

Comparing Buffalo's 22 percent investment with other districts underscores the lack of financial commitment:

Buffalo's investment is dead last among the Big Five cities in New York -- Yonkers (59 percent local), New York City (48 percent), Rochester (39 percent) and Syracuse (29 percent).

It's also last among a group of mostly out-of-state districts of similar size -- Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Boston, St. Louis and Rochester.

The state rescues Buffalo schools, providing about 70 percent of operating funds.

"This district is on welfare from the State of New York," said Arthur O. Eve, deputy speaker of the Assembly.

It is on the dole by design.

Former Mayor James D. Griffin and the Common Council cut city aid to the schools during the 1980s as the state increased its commitment.

During the past 11 budget years, the city has cut aid to education by 7 percent while increasing spending on virtually all other municipal services. Spending for police and fire services, for example, has jumped 73 percent during that period.

As a result, the portion of city property tax revenues spent on education has dropped from 61 to 35 percent over the past 11 budget years.

By effectively diverting state education aid to city coffers, Griffin and the Council were able to keep property tax increases well below the rate of inflation, which contributed to their re-election.

"Everybody blames Jimmy Griffin, but the Council has to share in it. They had a vote on every budget," said North Council Member Dale L. Zuchlewski. "They enjoyed those budget surpluses and low tax increases as much as anyone."

Education supporters have few allies on the Council, Zuchlewski said.

"It seems to be popular to kick the Board of Education and make accusations about wasteful spending," he said. "But that also holds true for city departments, and we didn't stop spending on parks because of Bob Delano."

There is, however, widespread sentiment for a greater city investment.

Ninety-two percent of educators and parent and community leaders surveyed by The Buffalo News said the school system is not adequately funded.

The 154 survey respondents point the finger of blame at the city. Ninety-four percent said the city isn't doing its share. Nearly 60 percent gave the state a favorable rating for its financial support.

Mayor Masiello, who took office 15 months ago, says the city needs to spend more on education. But he adds that can't happen until the city straightens out its own fiscal problems that include a projected $25 million deficit next year.

Masiello, in his first budget, effectively cut operating aid to the city schools by $1.5 million, and his budget aides are talking of another cut of up to $10 million.

District squanders funds

School administrators have been anything but thrifty despite their assertion they need more money.

Buffalo is one of only two school districts in Erie County that provide health insurance to retired employees. These retirees receive top-of-the-line coverage that cost the district $4.9 million this year.

Buffalo also receives a lot of aid for supplies, equipment and textbooks -- some $9.4 million in 1992-93. But much of that isn't making its way into classrooms.

The city spends twice as much per student on equipment and supplies as do area suburban districts -- $150 per city student, compared with $74 per suburban student. It also spends substantially more on textbooks -- $56 compared with $36.

Yet city teachers and principals commonly complain about a lack of supplies.

"We're not given the materials and supplies we need to work with these children," said Mary Beth Zanghi, a teacher at the Academic Challenge Center.

Where is the money going?

The city spends more on textbooks than most suburban districts, said Richard Hitzges, the district's top financial official. City school officials realize many of their students can't pay for some books out of pocket the way suburban students can, he said, so the district fills the void.

Hitzges was at a loss to explain the equipment and supply figure. He expressed confidence the money is making its way to the the schools.

So why do teachers complain about lack of materials?

"I can't explain it. The question may be better put to the building principals," Hitzges said.

Principals answer: We don't see the money.

The questionable spending on supplies and health insurance for retirees is in addition to the inefficiencies that the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission discovered after studying city schools.

The commission found:

Teachers spend less time in the classroom than in most other districts.

The district is overpaying for employee benefits.

Employee absenteeism is higher than average.

The district spends too much to maintain school buildings.

The commission recommended 34 ways the district could save money -- including $83 million over the next five years through improved practices that don't require re-negotiating contracts.

"The district can find ways of economizing that would put more resources in the classroom," said Bruce Boissonnault. who directed the commission's study.

Programs in short supply

Buffalo in 1992-93 spent an average of $7,717 per pupil, which is only $285 less than the suburban average. The figure is misleading, however.

The commission calculated the district spends only about $5,400 for a regular student. Close to half of the district's pupils receive supplemental services, ranging from remedial instruction to special education. Those programs don't come cheap. For example, the cost per special education pupil is about $15,700, the commission said.

Suburban school districts have a much smaller percentage of pupils requiring costly programs such as special education. That means Buffalo schools spend one-third to one-quarter less on a pupil not requiring special services than does the average suburban district.

Buffalo compares poorly not only with the suburbs, but against other large urban districts. It spent $1,303 less per pupil than the average in Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City. The figure includes all pupils.

The money gap doesn't show up so much in the classrooms as in other areas. Compared with suburban districts, Buffalo's spending per student is:

Half as much to build new schools and make other capital improvements.

"We need new schools in the system," said Judith McGowan, a teacher at School 54.

A quarter less on pupil services such as guidance, attendance, health, social work and psychological programs.

"Most of my time is not spent on the academics, it's spent on the mental health and family problems of my students and their families. I have become their counselor," said Jacqueline Morana, principal of Houghton Academy.

Four times less on after-school programs such as interscholastic sports and co-curricular and recreational activities.

"We used to have a lot more money for a lot of things. A lot of the programs are gone," said Jim Kapsiak, a teacher and coach at Emerson High School.

One-third less on libraries.

"We have the same budget we had 25 years ago," said Kathleen Kren, librarian at the Bennett Park Montessori School.

City teachers and principals also complain that the district doesn't offer enough training programs. Budget figures show that, in comparison with suburban districts, the city spends 40 percent less per teacher on training programs.

"We have to change our way of teaching, and staff development is critical," said Hugh Petrie, dean of education at the University at Buffalo.

Buffalo's spending also lags behind the average of urban districts in all categories except libraries.

Not all is grim, however. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Buffalo schools:

Have lean administrative costs. Suburban districts spend twice as much on administrative overhead as the city does. The other urban districts spend 2 1/2 times as much as Buffalo. Some of the economies can be attributed to the district's large scale. But the district has cut more than 20 administrative jobs in recent years. The Financial Plan Commission in its report said the district could eliminate more administrative jobs if it reorganized.

Don't spend that much more on transportation than suburban districts. Buffalo's annual cost per student of $516 is 15 percent higher than suburban districts but 5 percent less than other urban districts.

School Superintendent Albert Thompson said that while Buffalo's court-ordered desegregation program requires the city to bus a higher percentage of students than are transported in the suburbs, travel distances for elementary pupils in the city are shorter and public transportation for high school students is more economical than what's provided in the suburbs.

More money needed

Even if the district were able to achieve every economy recommended by the commission, the system would face a $51 million shortfall over the next five years. If the district does nothing, the commission report warned of a $240 million shortfall over the next five years.

Put another way, the district's projected budget deficit is even larger than the city's.

"Could we make things operate more efficiently? Sure. But that doesn't close the gap," said School Board President Donald A. Van Every. "We are saying to Buffalo residents that it's a question of getting used to less for your children or fighting for what they deserve."

Paul Lafornara, principal at South Park High School, is one of many educators who are convinced city schoolchildren will continue to suffer until the gap between city and suburban districts is closed.

"My daughter attends Williamsville South High School," he said. "When I see what that school has and what this school doesn't have, it gets me angry. There is no equity of funding. It's horrible. It's deplorable. It's criminal. It's immoral."

TUESDAY: Poor leadership, in the community as well as the school district, has helped cause and compound problems.

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