Millions of public dollars that could be used to help children in the classroom are now being spent on overtime for civil service workers, unregulated credit card purchases and administrative costs to oversee grant programs.
A review of the district budget found $3 million in overtime for tradesmen and $700,000 in credit card purchases for inventory that largely went unregulated – both expenses that spiked in recent years.
An auditor also identified $6 million in grant money the Buffalo Public Schools had to return to the state because the district did not use that.
Added to that, district leaders could redirect $24 million in federal dollars aimed at supporting poor children in the classroom, $2 million of which is now being spent on administrative costs.
Those figures were presented to Buffalo school board members on Wednesday as they begin to look for ways to fund key initiatives, such as lower class sizes in the elementary grade levels and afterschool programs.
“This is our biggest obstacle this year, to find the money for this program,” said board member Larry Quinn, chairman of the board’s finance committee.
Ultimately, new Superintendent Kriner Cash and those on both sides of the Buffalo School Board want to use the information brought to them by an outside auditor to revamp the district’s central operations and put more money into programs that directly affect students. That could include money for afterschool programs, reading teachers or hiring additional staff to lower class sizes.
Along with those priorities, the district faces other potentially costly reforms, including its response to a civil rights complaint and the possibility of settling the contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
“Those things will bust this budget wide open,” Quinn said. “I know we’re headed toward a huge budget deficit if we don’t start making some decisions early.”
The review, which was paid for by Say Yes Buffalo, looked at things such as how the district manages grants and its service center, which oversees work done at schools and the distribution of supplies.
“There’s an opportunity to fund four, five, six key strategies with these findings,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes. “This is a great tool for Cash to see where he can free up dollars to pay for programs for students.”
In the Title 1 department, auditors found that of about $28 million, just $2 million is slated for expenses dictated by state and federal laws. The rest can be used at the discretion of the district. About $2 million is now used on administrative expenses.
The Title 1 department came under scrutiny earlier this year when the FBI probed how a former administrator used more than $100 million in federal funding. As a result of the investigation, former assistant superintendent Debbie Buckley was charged with embezzling more than $10,000. Her son was charged with stealing an additional $15,120.
Auditors also looked at the district’s process for purchasing materials and the use of credit cards by workers, a practice that largely goes unregulated. Last year, for example, district employees spent $700,000 on purchases with those cards, but what that money bought was largely unaccounted for by the district. The practice leaves the potential for purchasing materials in surplus, or materials going unused. Auditors found the district supply warehouse contained unopened boxes of athletic uniforms and books that had not been distributed to schools.
“If you’ve got a ton of bricks and no one knows they’re there you end up ordering more bricks,” said board member Carl Paladino said.
Another area of concern is costs for overtime, which last year amounted to $3 million for civil service workers, in part because they are scheduled to report during regular school hours but cannot do the work until students leave.
Cash said the audit gives some direction where to streamline the district operations, but ultimately wants people in place to catch such inefficiencies before they cost the district significant resources.
“All of these are areas that are ripe for repair,” Cash said. “But I expect a lot of this we can repair when we get the right people in these positions. We should know this. He shouldn’t have to tell us.”
Board members Wednesday also revisited a revamp of how they conduct business at their public meetings. The conversation stemmed from a resolution put forth by some board members that called for redoing the committee structure and limiting public comment at meetings.
After hearing comments for about an hour from members of the community, board members agreed to look for more efficient models of government and deferred to Cash for a recommendation how they might better conduct their meetings. That might involve shifting to public forums to hear community feedback.
“You first have to acknowledge that we have a system that needs to be dramatically repaired,” Cash said. “It’s not working for the public. It’s not working for children.”