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A boost for Buffalo schools Significant rise in state aid could halt layoffs, cuts

Buffalo Public Schools could be on the verge of avoiding significant layoffs and program cuts for the first time in six years as a result of the new state budget.

That would be a dramatic reversal, since the district's chronic fiscal troubles have resulted in the elimination of about 1,000 jobs -- most of them teachers -- in the last five years. As a result, classroom programs have suffered greatly and so has public confidence in the city school system.

Figures released Friday showed Buffalo due for a $29 million -- or 8 percent -- increase in state operating aid. School officials also hope to redirect to the operating budget considerable portions of a one-time grant of $31.6 million for building expenses.

If that strategy succeeds, the district is within reach of wiping out a projected $48 million deficit for the 2006-07 school year and avoiding the need for further layoffs, at least for one year.

"We've gotten a one-year reprieve from what otherwise would have been an unconscionable diminution of the budget," said Gary Crosby, the district's chief financial and operating officer. "That is the best we can hope for at this point."

However, Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, cast doubt on the district's strategy, saying the $31.6 million is designated specifically for building aid.

"It is clearly not intended to be used for operating aid," Bennett said.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, described the impact of the state aid hike in Buffalo as "huge," but said he is not certain what flexibility the district might have with the $31.6 million.

If the money can be tweaked to cover operating expenses, "the threat of layoffs and the threat of increased class sizes we've faced for five years simply doesn't exist," Hoyt said.

>Suburbs get help, too

Most local suburban districts also benefited considerably from the Legislature's aid package.

"I can't say this is anything but fantastic news for us," said Brian L. Schulz, treasurer of the West Seneca Central Schools, which are in line for a $1.1 million -- or 4.2 percent -- hike in operating aid. "It will help us reduce our tax rate and maintain our instructional program."

West Seneca also will receive $2.4 million in one-time building aid and $154,000 for universal prekindergarten -- enough to provide preschool instruction for 40 or 50 additional pupils.

The Cheektowaga-Sloan School District is slated for a $591,000 hike in state aid, or 8.54 percent.

"My initial reaction is: 'great,' " said Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski. "I like the numbers. We'll try and maintain the status quo and reduce the tax rate wherever we can."

The state aid bonanza has the greatest impact in Buffalo, which relies on the state for more than 80 percent of its funding.

In addition to the operating aid and building aid, the district is slated to receive $5.3 million to restore full-time nurses to all city schools and $1 million to expand prekindergarten programs.

Hoyt said the district also will benefit from $4 million in magnet school aid that was not included in the figures released Friday.

But Crosby cautions that the $31.6 million in building aid -- called the "Excel" program -- is slated to be in effect just next year and does not solve the ingrained budget problems that prompted five years of layoffs and cuts.

"We're very happy to have it, but it is a 'one-shot' and does not solve our structural budget deficit," he said.

Crosby said it is crucial that the district continue to pursue $13 million in health care savings, as well as other changes in union contracts.

And while the state aid might allow the district to maintain existing staff and programs, it does not cover $21 million in new programs crucial to Superintendent James A. Williams' three-year improvement plan, Crosby said.

The district will try to fund as many of those initiatives as possible by redirecting existing money from other programs, he said.

But school officials warned that the aid package could change before the budget is finalized, and said aspects of the state budget are not always what they first appear to be.

"The devil is in the details," Crosby said. "We're going to have to read them very carefully."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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