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Buffalo School Board faces tough choices on Cash’s agenda

As Buffalo school officials begin working on their budget for the next school year, administrators may need to make some difficult choices in order to pay for the ambitious reforms that Superintendent Kriner Cash wants to see in the classroom.

Among the school district’s priorities for the coming year are reducing class sizes, hiring additional literacy specialists and lengthening the school day – all items that will take a significant investment that is still being determined.

“One of the most important parts of our bargain with parents and students is helping them become successful, joyful readers by the end of third grade,” Anne K. Botticelli, the district’s chief academic officer, said during a presentation on the early literacy program that will include support for students both in the classroom and at home.

School Board members were given their first glimpse Wednesday of some of the factors in the development of the district’s budget for the coming year. Since funding streams are still being determined, the district is working off its $825.8 million general fund for 2015-16.

That includes a $17 million deficit, driven in part by increases in salaries and employee health insurance. The district also needs to figure out how to continue paying for programs and positions added this year – including additional physical-education teachers – that were paid for using savings and contingency funds.

The district could see a rise in its revenues, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposing an $18.9 million increase in state aid. It is not clear, however, how much Cash’s reform plan will cost the district.

The budget information came a week after Cash outlined some specific priorities for the schools. They include lowering class sizes and opening new high schools, which will involve hiring additional staff.

The effort to lower class sizes, for example, could cost as much as $39 million.

The board is expected to continue its budget conversation in early February.

Board members Wednesday also revisited how they conduct their public meetings. Several members raised the concern last year that time at meetings is not as productive as it could be.

The current schedule includes a board meeting every week, with two meetings per month for general business and the other two for committee meetings when board members discuss specific topics.

“In my long experience working with boards large and small, one meeting per month and perhaps one workshop a month is more than adequate and aligns with best practice,” Cash said.

He proposed one meeting a month that would include speakers and a second meeting that would be a workshop for board members to discuss specific items.

“We think the efficiency for you as a board will be improved,” Cash said.

Most board members, however, expressed concerns about Cash’s proposed model, saying they fear that it would cut into their time for properly vetting policies.

The board asked Cash to come up with a more detailed analysis of how his proposal differs from their current practice.