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Buffalo's school maintenance system is about to come under the microscope, and experts ultimately might be asked whether a private company can do the job better and more economically.

A consulting firm soon will be hired to examine a maintenance and cleaning arrangement that dates to the Civil War and which critics contend is secretive, costly and antiquated. It provides the operating engineer at each city school with a lump sum of money to spend on maintenance and cleaning. They can keep what they don't spend.

"The ultimate goal is to determine how we can reduce our costs so we can get more money into the classroom," said Gary Crosby, the Buffalo Public Schools' chief financial officer. "We're trying to get some forward movement here. Most of the movement so far has been sidestepping."

Crosby said the first phase of the project will determine whether the system is cost-effective compared with those of similar school districts. If costs are deemed to be relatively high, other options -- including privatization -- will be explored.

Florence D. Johnson, president of the Board of Education, compared the study to a report by the Council of the Great City Schools that led to an overhaul of financial operations and the hiring of Crosby.

"We want to have the information we need," she said. "We're trying to avoid being on the defensive all the time."

Dramatic change could be difficult, since the current system is spelled out in a contract between the school system and Local 409 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

The engineers receive base salaries of $40,605, which sometimes swells to $70,000 with overtime. In addition, they receive an average of about $34,000 a year above their salaries through an arrangement that allows them to keep money they don't spend on subcontractors, supplies or other expenses.

Despite numerous efforts to obtain the engineers' records, the Board of Education still does not receive detailed reports on how that money is spent.

"What we're really saying is: 'Look, we're a public body. It's incumbent on us to show that we're accountable for public dollars,' " said Christopher Jacobs, an at-large member of the Board of Education.

The maintenance system has come under attack recently on these fronts:

The state control board charged that custodial costs in city schools are 31 percent above the national average. It has been pushing the system to explore alternatives.

A private firm said it could save the system $5 million to $8 million a year by doing the work by contract.

After an FBI investigation, the former chief engineer at McKinley High School pleaded guilty in September 2003 to payroll doctoring.

The engineers say they do their jobs honestly and efficiently, and that previous studies showed that the system is cost-effective.

Paul D. Weiss, the attorney for Local 409, said the union offered to conduct a joint study with the school system about a year ago, but was rebuffed.

"If the (newly announced) study is objective and not skewed, and if it presents an accurate assessment of what we do, it will show that we are cost-effective," he said.

The control board expressed support for a separate board resolution calling on the engineers to file monthly statements on how their money is spent.

William D. Hibbard, an official of the management services firm that says it could do the work for millions less each year, welcomed the study.

"It's a new and different way of looking at things, and it's something we need more of," said Hibbard, director of facility management services for Grubb & Ellis, a national firm with an office in the Town of Tonawanda. "Frankly, they are overspending. They'll find that the savings are there and can be achieved."


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