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Risky move on rehiring; School Board's use of contingency fund just postpones fiscal day of reckoning

It's a risky game the Buffalo School Board has begun. By draining its contingency account to rehire teachers, it is rolling the dice that it will not need that money in the coming year. Restoring teacher positions may be a worthy goal, but maintaining fiscal stability is a nonnegotiable one.

The School Board gave no public consideration to that need. In fact, there seemed to be no analysis at all of how best to proceed.

The board voted unanimously on Monday to use the district's entire contingency fund -- $1.2 million -- for the coming school year to restore an undetermined number of teachers and teacher's aides who had received layoff notices earlier this month. Together with the 47 teachers and 27 teacher's aides recalled over the weekend, the action is likely to restore more than 100 jobs out of the 117 teachers and 150 teacher's aides who had been laid off.

The board still has a fund balance it can use in case of emergency, but this rehiring is a bad start to a program of planned teacher reductions. As part of its four-year fiscal plan, approved by the Buffalo control board, the School Board put in place an annual reduction of 100 teachers. What will it do next year and the year after that and the year after that?

Painful as it is to point out, those jobs were cut for a reason: State and local government revenues -- sources of most of the school district's funding -- are down as the effects of the economic downtown hang on. That impacts the number of teachers who can be employed, and it's only getting worse. Officials say the district is facing budget deficits of $36.8 million, $45.8 million and $60.8 million over the next three years.

What is more, the district is expecting to see enrollment decrease by as much as 500 students in the school year that starts next week. That also impacts the number of teachers who are needed.

The board gave no thought to such issues. No one asked, "How many teachers do we need?" or wondered, "Is there a better way to use this money to educate our students?" or otherwise thought to apply standard business evaluations to the idea. The board wanted to hire back some teachers, it found a pile of money and threw it at the problem.

No one likes taking people's jobs away, especially when they have an impact on students in a poor school district. But the School Board plainly needs more discipline.

It did well in not taking teachers union President Philip Rumore up on his offer to pay half the cost of restoring all the teacher jobs, given the conditions Rumore insisted upon, including a guarantee of no layoffs this school year.

We can all hope that the economy improves enough that the School Board can legitimately back away from its four-year plan for teacher reductions. But no one dare count on that.

The board has a plan and it is all but certain to have less financial wiggle room in the coming years than it does today. Taxpayers need to know that the board is following a prudent course that will lead to stability and quality education.

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