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Williams addresses parents on aid cuts

Buffalo Public School Superintendent James A. Williams on Thursday appealed to parents to pressure their state representatives to avoid cutting state aid to local school districts.

Williams, who addressed about 40 parents during a community budget forum in Bennett High School, acknowledged that it might be a hard sell, with the state facing a projected $8 billion deficit. However, Williams shared with parents what is at stake in Gov. David A. Paterson's plan to cut state aid to education by $1.8 billion.

"In Buffalo, that would generate a $50 million deficit, because 80 percent of our budget [comes] from the state," Williams said.

"So we are dependent on the state. We receive 12 percent from local funds, about $72 million. If we have to adjust our budget by $50 million, it would tear this school system apart," he added.

The result, Williams said, would be layoffs, larger class sizes and reductions in classroom programs, which would wipe out academic gains the district has made over the past couple of years, including last year's 59 percent graduation rate for the district.

"Fifty-nine percent is not acceptable, but it's better than it was four years ago," he said.

The superintendent, with assistance from the district's chief financial officer, Barbara J. Smith, outlined some actions district administrators are prepared to take to avoid the impact of a multimillion-dollar shortfall, such as seeking the School Board's permission to use $42.5 million in reserve funds to help close the gap.

The district, it was noted, has $170 million in reserves, but much of it is tied up in the district's legal battle over wages with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and other obligations.

In the meantime, Williams and Smith said the district is seeking a change in the state formula on how much the district must pay charter schools so it reflects the loss in state aid.

Smith said the district has already decreased its transportation costs by $4 million. Still, there are going to be cuts, Williams said.

"Our goal is to try to hold the schoolchildren harmless," said Williams, who encouraged parents to lobby state lawmakers on their concerns about the loss in state aid.

Wendy Mistretta said she plans to encourage parents of students at the school her children attend to do just that.

"My kids are at School 45, which is the International School. So it was important to me that they be exposed to diversity in a way that many kids aren't in the suburbs, and even in other parts of the city," said Mistretta.

"I think there would be an added burden if those schools were cut throughout the city, hurting these kids who don't even speak English in their homes. They go to school to learn English and they bring that home to their own families, so there would be additional impact beyond just the kids [but also] on the families in these communities," she added.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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