The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, once criticized for partying at taxpayer expense, is close to achieving a feat of fiscal frugality that might be unmatched in local schools.
Bowing to public pressure, Erie County's second-largest suburban district wants to offer full-day kindergarten and vastly expand busing for students soon.
Board members also plan to do it all without raising taxes much -- if at all.
"Unbelievable. It's an unheard-of development," said Martin Schechtman of the 450-member Orchard Park Citizens Group.
"Too bad we don't have that school board at Williamsville Central Schools," said Marianna Sontag of the East Amherst Taxpayers Association. "Apparently, they know how to get the job done."
Combined, the two programs could have cost Ken-Ton more than $1.65 million -- $800,000 for kindergarten teachers, aides and other costs; and $850,000, or $85,000 per extra bus, to increase transportation.
But instead of raising taxes, the board's new majority is banking on a combination of available funds and greater flexibility.
Some board members want to dig into projected budget surpluses and other funds to pay for full-day kindergarten after start-up aid from Albany ends.
To expand busing without paying a much higher price, board members want to make creative use of the current fleet, such as staggering school starting times or consolidating stops.
To do that, board members bucked the system. When administrators warned that the cost would be high, the board ordered them back to the drawing board to find a different way.
"It's incredible that they did that," Schechtman said, noting that school boards typically follow the administration's lead, not the other way around. "It's pushing the envelope of board authority."
The board still has a way to go on both issues: Members are awaiting a last report on cost and other ramifications before deciding whether to start full-day kindergarten next September. On busing, a public vote is required to make changes.
But the board's three-member majority is optimistic.
"I hope we can make a statement with this," said Dan Wiles, a board member whose job as a Town of Tonawanda parks and recreation official has primed him for being tight with tax dollars.
He figures that a budget as large as Ken-Ton's -- this year's is $95.6 million -- contains enough money for extra services. The board just need to be willing to search, he said.
"You can't just keep taking the easy road and saying, 'It will cost this much more,' " Wiles said.
Such thinking represents a sea change for the district. Just a couple of years ago, Ken-Ton was embroiled in controversies over the large sums the board spent on perquisites such as traveling to conferences, eating out and throwing parties for employees.
Since then, the board's composition has changed drastically, with Wiles; Anne C. Evans, the board's president; and Joseph Salamone, a management expert at the University at Buffalo, casting a critical eye on spending.
Many top administrators, including Superintendent David A. Paciencia, also are new, another crucial difference. That, says Salamone, means more officials are willing to look at new ideas and approaches.
"When you are new to a system, you tend to ask more questions," Paciencia said. "I know I do. You don't have any assumptions."
Still, the board's new majority faces plenty of hurdles. As Mrs. Evans points out, the board has given the administration the charge of delivering better bus service for less. But whether officials will come back with such a blueprint will not be known until December or January, when the final report is due.
Some fierce battles with the teachers union are likely if the board starts poking around the budget to fund kindergarten. The board got a preview of that a couple of weeks ago, when teachers helped pack a board meeting to protest cutting such programs as art to make way for full-day kindergarten.
Paciencia managed to head off the flap by assuring the audience that such rumors were not true.
But the lesson was not lost.
"People are not willing to look at how and why they do things, because that might mean change," Salamone said. "And whenever you start talking about change, people's feathers start ruffling."