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STATE BOARD CHIDES SCHOOL DISTRICT
INSURANCE PLANS CITED AS TOO COSTLY

The state control board criticized Buffalo School District spending policies Wednesday, claiming "lavish" contracts and "exorbitant" health plans have channeled too much money into things that "don't add value" in the classrooms.

Board members said hundreds of new teachers could be hired if the district were not saddled with costly lump-sum severance packages, early retirement incentives and multiple health insurance providers.

Board Chairman Thomas E. Baker called on unions to "get real" and consider give-backs "for the sake of the children."

"This is a system that is under terrible stress," he said. "It's time that . . . the teachers, the administrators and so forth review and revisit what they're receiving today relative to how we can keep the system afloat."

He made his remarks a week after it was disclosed that contract talks with the school district's unions are at a near standstill. Teachers union President Philip Rumore blamed the stalemate on a wage freeze imposed by the control board earlier this year.

"It's amazing. (Control board members) caused this problem in the first place. Now they're trying to blame it on us," said Rumore, who was out of town and did not attend Wednesday's meeting.

The control board said the district's projected $39 million gap this year could grow to $83 million within four years. Early retirement incentives alone cost the district $3.9 million last year, with 52 employees each receiving payments that exceeded $50,000.

They added that the school district's delay in implementing a single-provider health insurance plan will squander between $6 million and $12 million in savings this year. For every $10 million that is saved, they argued, about 200 teachers could be hired.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who sits on the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, said some insurance clauses for school district employees "add insult to injury."

"Not only can these individuals leave in a much better financial situation, but because of the provision of elective cosmetic surgery, you could theoretically go out almost looking like you (did when) you came in," he said to a chorus of laughter.

Giambra said he thinks city teachers are caring and compassionate, but he assailed Rumore.

"Here we have a union and a union leader who is recalcitrant, obstinate and selfish when it comes to putting children first," said Giambra.

He urged the control board to try to force changes by using as a hammer its ability to refuse to borrow money for the district to cover future gaps.

Rumore said it's regrettable that the control board wants to hold city employees accountable for "bad decisions" made over a half-century that he thinks caused Buffalo's economic decline. He said the decisions included building a football stadium and a university campus in the suburbs as opposed to downtown.

"It's pathetic that they want city employees to pay for other people's mistakes," he said.

He called the control board's opposition to early retirement incentives "bone-headed," claiming the schools save money in the long run by replacing higher-paid veteran teachers with new hires.

Florence D. Johnson, the newly elected president of the Board of Education, sat quietly as some control board members criticized "cost drivers" in contracts.

"We need to dispense with some of the inflammatory rhetoric and come to grips with the fact that we're all part of the city," she said. "We're all stewards of education for the children.".

Johnson added that the district continues to suffer the effects of past legal setbacks that saddled it with higher personnel costs and other expenses. She said resolving the long-term crisis will require effort from all stakeholders.

"I would hope that everyone will be able to be reasonable and come to the table and say, 'Hey, we have to do things differently.' "

The school district relies on the state for more than 80 percent of its funding, and because the state budget is even later than usual, it has been difficult for officials to plot a fiscal course. As it stands now, the district faces a gap of nearly $20 million and has cut 305 positions from this year's budget, including 194 teachers.

City finances took a back seat to school district budgeting at Wednesday's meeting, but several other issues surfaced. The board:

Approved an agreement that transfers maintainence duties in city parks to Erie County and a document that put all city employees under a single health insurer. Both initiatives took effect July 1, and the board previously had endorsed the efforts.

Praised the city for approving changes aimed at making its permit process more efficient.

Cited "positive movement" in a plan that would sell the city water system to the Erie County Water Authority. Buffalo's Water Board endorsed the concept this week. The plan also must be approved by the Common Council, the state, city voters and unions.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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