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COMMON COUNCIL SHOULD OK REFORMS

The Buffalo Board of Education has responsibly supported basic improvements in the procedures for planning and authorizing new city public schools, an achievement the more admirable because it required the board to relinquish existing authority.

The creation of a special seven-member panel should inject renewed urgency into the procedures governing the construction of new schools. These changes merit the approval required of the Common Council to take effect.

The new panel would give Mayor Masiello a larger voice in school affairs, which he has sought. But he would not control the recommended process. Nor should he. The panel would be composed of three representatives from the city government, three from the schools and a tie-breaking local representative on the state Board of Regents.

Hopefully, that balanced approach will accelerate the city's sluggish construction program. Despite the opening of new additions to two schools this fall, the district has opened only three brand-new schools since 1976.

The construction of a fourth, the Northwest Academy, is under way -- but lags two years behind schedule.

This slow construction schedule stems from the school bureaucracy, red tape and a seeming lack of urgency, not from any absence of need or required finances.

Thus, despite recent gains, Buffalo still rents classrooms in buildings it does not own. And that situation exists even as state-aid formulas that reimburse local districts for more than 90 percent of construction costs that fall within state ceilings wait to be exploited. The result: The age of city school buildings averages 65 years.

Any city trying to compete with the suburbs in holding its middle-class families with school-age children must do better than that.

There is no guarantee that the envisioned seven-member panel will succeed, but it can hardly do worse. There's a good chance that with representatives from the School Board and the school administration, along with the mayor and representatives from the Common Council and the Board of Regents, communications can improve. Planning for city and school projects should be better coordinated. So should decisions on priorities.

"We need to move expeditiously to select school sites and come up with funding mechanisms to build state-of-the-art facilities," Masiello emphasized. "By the end of the year, I hope that we have a plan to bring forward."

That's the urgency and drive required to push school construction ahead. Another plus here is that the proposed panel, by involving the mayor and the Council, increases its responsibility for coming up with concrete results.

For all this to come about, the Common Council must still vote its support. We hope it will. The revised approach to getting much-needed schools built deserves a fair chance to fulfil its promise.

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