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The Buffalo Public Schools are proposing a $455.8 million budget that would increase spending by 6.8 percent but merely maintain existing classroom programs. The overwhelming majority of the money would cover the salaries and other personnel costs of the existing staff.

Substantial classroom initiatives or new teaching positions would be established only if the schools receive more funding than the nearly $30 million proposed increase.

School officials today described the tentative proposal as a plan designed to "carry forward" existing programs and fund salary increases, step increases, fringe benefits and termination pay for about 200 teachers who are expected to retire.

At the same time, Superintendent James Harris proposed two additional spending segments that he hopes to include in next year's budget.

If that is not possible, Harris said, they will be requested in the following two years.

They are:

$44 million for 153 new instructional positions, the creation of a school for pregnant students and those with children, and 51 special-education positions.

An additional $30.8 million for 505 new positions to reduce class sizes and hire computer and remedial teachers, guidance counselors and librarians.

The addition of those two segments next year would increase spending by $104 million -- or 24 percent -- over the current budget of $426 million.

"What we eventually end up with will depend on our level of resources from the state and city," Harris said.

"We are committed to meeting the new state standards. This budget maps out a multiyear plan to take us there."

Harris said the addition of all three segments would result in the reinstatement of elementary school art, music and physical education; the opening of the Northwest Academy in September 2000; a reduction in elementary school class sizes; an expanded alternative education program; and telecommunications upgrades.

Harris, who released the proposal at a public
meeting in Waterfront School, called it a "developmental" plan that will be refined by input from board members, elected officials and the community.

Since the school district does not have taxing power, the ultimate budget will depend largely on funding from the city and state.

The proposed state budget -- scheduled for release Wednesday -- is particularly crucial since Albany provides 75 percent of the funds for city schools.

Harris said he will keep in close touch with Mayor Masiello and state legislators.

"Those are the people on the front line, and we have to keep them informed," Harris said at one point.

Barbara Fargo, associate superintendent for finance, said an inch-thick notebook presented to board members Thursday night represented just the revenue portion of the budget and therefore was not a formal spending plan. However, she said it answers this question often asked by board members: "How much will it take to maintain the current programs and services?"

"As we go forward to refine the numbers, this will change," Ms. Fargo said. "We're looking at a multiyear approach, based on the numbers, and phased in over three years," Harris said. "When we get the governor's numbers, then we know the programs."

He said the proposed budget was crafted after all 78 city schools made budget presentations to the administration.

Fewer than a dozen members of the public attended the meeting Thursday night, but at least two expressed concern about the district's missing deadlines for state aid, a mistake that will delay the receipt of more than $8 million.

"I don't want to leave without saying that I'm extremely concerned about what I read in the paper," said Blythe Merrill, who also raised concerns about overcrowded classrooms.

Harris and some members of the board criticized The Buffalo News for running stories on the paperwork snafu -- which Harris said resulted from a staff member's failing to mail a completed application -- and not focusing on the positive things that have been done in the district since his tenure began about three years ago.

"Regardless of whether you think there's a Buffalo News conspiracy, it does impact on our credibility," said West District School Board member Anthony J. Luppino.

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