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AFTERMATH MAY DRY UP FUNDS FOR CITY SCHOOLS

Buffalo school officials have imposed a freeze on hiring, overtime and equipment purchases because they are concerned that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could prevent the state from finalizing a supplemental budget and leave the district with a $23 million shortfall.

Far more dramatic cuts -- including the elimination of more than 250 jobs -- could be in the works.

"This is the first phase of belt-tightening," said Buffalo Board of Education President Paul G. Buchanan. "We're not at the point where we're going to panic, but we're taking a hard look at things."

Suburban school districts also are looking for ways to trim their budgets in the increasingly likely event they will receive no additional state aid.

"I don't believe there are going to be any additional funds for the majority of the school districts," said James P. Sheehan, superintendent of the Sweet Home Central Schools, though he said the state may still provide more school aid for Buffalo and New York City.

The Buffalo School Board in June passed a $509 million budget, which depends on an additional $23 million from the state to avoid draconian cuts that could eliminate sports and extracurricular activities and gut many classroom programs.

Until the World Trade Center attack, banking on the extra money seemed like a reasonable gamble. But state officials are now preoccupied with rescue and rebuilding efforts in New York City. They are not focused on school aid and have far less money to spend than they anticipated just a few weeks ago.

Without supplemental funding, the Buffalo schools could be forced to eliminate sports and extracurricular activities, extra help for struggling students, transportation for high school students and extra funding for six low-performing schools that are under state registration review.

In addition, more than 250 jobs -- including those of guidance counselors and reading, math, special education and attendance teachers -- could be eliminated, the board was told last month.

"We're going to get weekly updates, so if we need to make a decision, we will make it as soon as we have to," Buchanan said. "By the end of (this) week, we're probably got to take a look at the next level of options."

Suburban schools districts also face possible cutbacks without increased state aid, but the situation is most dramatic in Buffalo, which relies on the state for about 80 percent of its funding.

As a result, Sweet Home would use local tax dollars -- rather than anticipated state aid -- to pay its $100,000 share of a Board of Cooperative Educational Services construction program.

Without a supplemental budget, the Orchard Park schools would have to make about $200,000 in cuts and get by with a state aid increase of less than 1 percent, said Superintendent Charles Stoddart.

"We've gone from almost no talk about school aid (before the terrorist attacks) to zero talk," he said.

In West Seneca, more state aid is needed to prevent budget cuts.

"I'm going to remain optimistic that we get something more," said Superintendent John Schleifer. "Our budget is tighter than a clam with lockjaw right now."

Schools also are reassessing their hopes for state funding next year, when Gov. George E. Pataki runs for re-election. Now the state is faced with major costs arising from the terrorist attacks, as well as slumping financial markets and sales tax revenues.

"I think Sept. 11 could have put a major crimp in (next year's aid) also," Sheehan said.

In Buffalo, most staff positions are already filled for this school year. But there will be no additional hiring to replace teachers who retire, go on maternity leave or depart for other reasons, Buchanan said. Substitute teachers will be used when full-time teachers are sick, but not to free up teachers for staff development or other school business.

Buchanan said school officials suspended their lobbying efforts after the terrorist attacks. "You couldn't, in good conscience, ask any questions in the last week," he said. "It would be too self-serving and callous to say, 'What about my piece of the puzzle?' "

But discussions with legislators have resumed, and district officials are stressing the urgency of additional funds.

"I don't believe we can allow the terrorists to dictate that the schoolchildren of New York State are going to be the ones to finance the rebuilding," Buchanan said.

But if the money is not going to be forthcoming, it would help to know that soon so cuts could be spread out over a full school year.

"People at least want an answer," Buchanan said. "If you tell us now, we might not like it, but at least we can deal with it."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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