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Buffalo schools would get $13 million more amid warnings about future aid

The $13.6 million increase in state aid that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed for the Buffalo Public Schools in his 2017 budget will come in handy.

But as of right now, district leaders are not exactly sure how the money will be used.

And Buffalo is still waiting on approximately $91 million the district is owed from a 2006 court ruling targeting high needs district. But after next year, that money may not be coming, say critics who’ve dissected the governor’s proposal.

Cuomo’s budget plan released Tuesday night calls for at least a $1 billion hike – or 4 percent increase - over the nearly $25 billion the state is spending on public schools this year. District-by-district figures show Buffalo’s basic formula aid rising $13.6 million – or 2.8 percent – over the current $494.3 million.

District officials said that while the state budget process is in flux, it is too early to comment on how the money will be spent, whether it will be rolled into the general fund, earmarked for specific programs or for other uses, or whether it’s enough to close any potential budget gap.

"At this point I really haven’t had an opportunity to look at it and to really give it some thought," School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold said Wednesday. "When we get more specific numbers, it would make more sense to make comments."

Administrators echoed Nevergold’s sentiments. But they would like to see any increases in state aid directed to the district’s New Education Bargain - a vision for improving the troubled district. It is the driving force behind what the district wants to accomplish, said Geoff Pritchard, the district’s chief financial officer.

Cuomo administration officials were not available for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

The Board of Education allotted $20 million in the current school budget to roll out the plan, which has a price tag of about $40.5 million to cover opportunities for extended learning, more rigorous early elementary education, several new innovative high schools and converting a number of the schools into "community schools" to provide more wraparound services and outside resources.

The district also has to still pay for the recently approved contract with Buffalo Teachers Federation in addition to six other union contracts that still have to be negotiated. The district’s four-year financial plan released in 2015 had projected a $4.7 million surplus for the 2017-18 academic year - but that was before approving the BTF contract, which the district has already said it will need help paying for.

Pritchard said the district has to let its departments go through the budget process before determining the size of any potential budget gap.

And whatever financial problems schools are having this year might be exacerbated next year as critics say Cuomo’s spending proposal calls for essentially eliminating future increases in a key aid category.

The state came up with the "foundation aid" formula in 2007 to comply with a 2006 court ruling aimed at helping New York’s poorer public schools following a Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. But districts across the state are still owed $4.9 billion in CFE money, with Buffalo due about $91 million, said Eve Shippens, education chairwoman of Citizen Action of Western New York.

Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the Alliance for Quality Education, pointed to part of the governor’s proposal saying that, "For the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter, districts shall be eligible for Foundation Aid equal to the amount of Foundation Aid such districts received in the 2017-2018 school year."

She called that "a direct assault on communities of color and those living in poverty," adding that it would leave future aid increases subject to "political horse trading instead of students’ educational needs."

"When we look at Buffalo Public Schools, every single dollar counts," said Shippens.

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