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State budget brings good news to schools Full-time nurses, expanded prekindergarten are in the offing

The state budget agreement will allow Buffalo to restore full-time nurses to every school, pump $50 million into statewide prekindergarten programs and provide an overall increase of about 7 percent in aid to education, education officials said Thursday.

Full-time nurses are expected to be in city schools when they open in September.

"This is one the best budgets I've seen," State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills told The Buffalo News editorial board. "I think [the State Legislature] worked very hard and got a good result."

Although district-by-district breakdowns will not be released until today, Mills expects much of the $1.1 billion in increased aid to be directed to "high-needs" urban districts, including Buffalo.

Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams, who accompanied Mills on a visit to Bennett High School, said the budget includes $5.1 million for the restoration of full-time nursing services at all city schools.

"That's a great step forward," Williams said.

The county cut funding for nurses in Buffalo schools last year, prompting city schools to get by with nursing services for as little as an hour or two a day. Left to make medical decisions they were not trained for, teachers and principals sometimes relied on ambulances to respond to problems that could have been handled routinely by a nurse.

The budget agreement also includes $50 million for the expansion of statewide prekindergarten programs, said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the State Board of Regents.

"A few thousand youngsters will have access to a good start, and there's nothing more important than that," he said.

The Regents lobbied for $99 million in additional prekindergarten aid, and Gov. George E. Pataki's proposed budget included no new funding.

Williams was pleased that Buffalo is slated for a healthy boost in state aid and said it will reduce the district's projected $46 million budget gap for the 2006-07 school year.

But he said Buffalo schools have imposed massive layoffs and program cuts each of the last five years despite earlier hikes in state aid.

Much like General Motors and other corporations, he said, Buffalo's structural fiscal troubles are driven by health care costs, retirement bonuses, overtime pay and the cost of substitute teachers.

"More state aid is not the solution," Williams said. "We have to change the way we do business."

Mills said he is impressed by Williams' emphasis on enhancing literacy skills and school safety, and that the superintendent and the Board of Education were "absolutely right" to phase-out social promotion.

"He knows instruction," Mills said of Williams. "He has a very clear plan. Every time I've talked to him, he always talks about children."

Mills declined to offer a timetable when asked how long it should take for Williams' reform plan to produce substantial improvements in student performance.

"I'm hopeful," he said. "It should get -- it could get -- a lot better."

Citing a statewide high school graduation rate of just 64 percent, Mills said the Regents are crafting a high school reform plan designed to make the curriculum more challenging and interesting.


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