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More cuts sought in Buffalo Public Schools’ budget amid state aid shortfall

With a nearly $50 million budget deficit projected for the next school year, Buffalo Public Schools leaders are starting to look for ways to scale back their spending, including options that could affect school operations or employee benefits.

School district officials have been projecting a large budget gap for the 2014-15 school year, and that estimate grew this past week when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo released a state budget that did not include as big an increase for Buffalo schools as administrators hoped for.

The district developed its early budget projections anticipating a 2.6 percent increase in state aid, but the bump Cuomo proposed turned out to be 2.4 percent.

“The bad news is that my conservative state aid estimates were not conservative enough,” Barbara Smith, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board this past week. “The deficit has actually increased.”

And that new deficit figure does not include expenses for summer school, a medical high school and an after-school program in partnership with Say Yes Buffalo that could cost $14 million.

“That gives us very little wiggle room to fund anything new,” Smith told the board.

To be sure, it is early in the budget process and school districts typically start off projecting large budget deficits. There are still a number of unknown factors, including how much funding the district will get from some state grant programs.

The district may also realize some savings from positions that went unfilled or other cost savings from the current year. The Buffalo Public Schools have also relied in recent years on reserves to balance the budget.

But now, as the board readies to start developing its budget for the next school year, some school leaders are pushing to cut costs.

“This is catastrophic in so many respects,” said board member Carl Paladino. “There has to be a very strong effort made now to come back and tell us what you’re going to do about this.”

At a recent School Board meeting, Paladino proposed dropping retirees from the district’s health care plan, paying the financial penalty and requiring them to enroll in the state’s new health care exchange, a possibility Smith said the district is already exploring.

Paladino has also called for the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority to conduct an audit of the district’s spending.

That authority has already expressed concerns about the fiscal stability of the district in the long run.

In a recent memo to board members, Smith wrote that the authority flagged the district’s reliance on reserve funds and directed the administration to come up with a list of potential cuts.

“While the District balanced its budget for 2013-14, reserves were used to do so and the budget deficits in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 were projected to be $39.5 million, $46.8 million and $48.7 million, respectively,” the memo said.