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School attendance down sharply 3,000 students are unaccounted for

Enrollment in Buffalo Public Schools may fall even more dramatically than projected this year, a development that could worsen the district's financial woes and set back efforts to build public confidence.

Superintendent James A. Williams said Wednesday evening that district officials are working with local social service agencies to locate about 3,000 youngsters who are enrolled in city schools but not showing up for class.

"Are they in charter schools or parochial schools?" Williams said at a Board of Education meeting. "Did they leave the city? Are they sitting at home? We're trying to figure out where they are."

District projections anticipated an enrollment of 37,000 this year, down from 38,500 last year and 46,000 in 1999-2000. Williams said actual enrollment figures -- expected to be finalized next week -- could show an even bigger drop.

Gary M. Crosby, the district's chief fiscal officer, is concerned that more students than expected may have enrolled in charter schools. If so, the district will be forced to pay more in charter school transfer payments, which are based on enrollment.

The district has already budgeted $49.8 million for charter schools, and every additional 100 charter school students would cost the district another $870,000, Crosby said.

A continuing sharp drop in attendance also threatens to erode Williams' efforts to build momentum and public trust in the troubled city schools.

"If they're leaving and going to charter or parochial schools, it tells us our parents aren't happy," Williams said. As many as 200 to 300 students are unaccounted for in some city high schools, he added.

The enrollment concerns developed shortly after the district laid off 14 attendance teachers as part of the cost-cutting move associated with the school system's dispute with its unions over single carrier health insurance.

Asked if the enrollment problem would be eased if the attendance teachers were still on staff, Williams replied: "No comment."

Before the meeting, a rally organized by the district's unions drew a large turnout to protest the lack of new contracts and what the unions describe as "contract-gutting proposals" from district negotiators.

"The morale in this district is the lowest I've ever seen it," Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said at the board meeting.

Williams said the district needs to cut costs. "Marching outside will not solve the problem," he said. "Picketing my apartment will not solve the problem. Sitting down and talking is what we have to do."

In other developments:

Williams said 11 of 16 Buffalo high schools have smoothly implemented "Commencement Academies" for eighth-grade graduates who are below grade level in reading and math, and singled out Lafayette High School for effectively tackling that task. He said he will insist that the other five schools do the same.

A plan to strengthen the district's athletic program is expected to be finalized in a few weeks.

Students, parents and teachers at Bennett High School urged the board to rescind the layoff of Leslie Potempa, a guidance teacher they described as an energetic advocate for students. Potempa, who has been laid off five times in four years, is slated to lose her job next month because of the health insurance dispute. "We're losing all our role models," said Crystal Johnson, a Bennett student. "Every year we lose more and more."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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