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As critics decry Buffalo's lack of funding for schools, mayor pledges $500,000 more

Mayor Byron W. Brown is pledging an extra $500,000 for the city schools after meeting with Buffalo parents on Thursday.

“I am very appreciative of this opportunity to talk to parents,” Brown said.

The amount falls far short of the $8.5 million increase requested by Superintendent Kriner Cash, but parent leaders said it was a step in the right direction.

It also cuts into funding earmarked for the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program. In his State of the City address, Brown said that Say Yes would get another $1 million. On Thursday, he said that money will be split between the scholarship program and the district.

The increase also does little to bring the city's contribution on par with other urban school systems.

Yonkers taxpayers cover 45 percent of their city's school budget.

In Rochester and Syracuse, city taxpayers pony up roughly 14 percent.

Buffalo taxpayers? Not even 8 percent.

Now, parents and some state legislators think it is time the City of Buffalo pay a bigger part of the education bill, especially since the city has not increased its funding for schools in more than a decade.

"There's a history in Buffalo of not funding the city's public schools," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. "Now, as the value of real estate goes up in Buffalo, there is no real reason they can't be investing more in the schools."

Peoples-Stokes said she would advise the mayor to look for ways to do that.

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Leaders of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization and District Parent Coordinating Council are also calling on the mayor to increase the city's contribution to schools, saying more money is needed to continue education programs that parents strongly support.

"When we looked at comparisons across the big city districts, we saw that not only is Buffalo contributing less money, it's been 12 years since they've increased aid," said Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. "We think it's time for that to change."

After the two groups announced earlier this week that they plan to take their cause to the Common Council's Education Committee meeting on Thursday, Brown called Thursday's meeting with them.

The mayor issued a statement Wednesday evening pointing to the contributions the city has made to the school system. At the start of his tenure in 2006, for example, the city increased the district's allocation from $68.7 million to $70.8 million. Each subsequent budget included a flat $70.3 million allocation.

Brown also notes that the city has contributed significant resources to the Say Yes Buffalo program, and also supports the district with administrative space, utilities and security.

"It should also be noted that during that same time period, the school district has received an additional $305 million in New York State school aid, with the state contribution rising from $408 million to a current $714 million," the statement continues. "During that same time period, state aid to the City of Buffalo has increased $39.4 million, and in fact, remained flat at $161.3 million for the last four years."

The push for more city funding is growing especially intense this year, as the district looks for more money to pay for a new teacher contract and Cash's ambitious education agenda.

The teacher contract is expected to cost $98.8 million over the next four years, and Cash's improvement plan has been priced at up to $40 million.

If the district cannot reduce costs or find new revenue, those costs are expected to drive a budget gap of $162 million over the next four years.

Cash asked state lawmakers to kick in an additional $52 million, and members of the local delegation have been optimistic they will be able to secure a substantial bump.

He also wanted $8.5 million more from the city, but so far it doesn't look like the mayor is budging.

"It doesn't make sense to me politically that the state keeps upping its contribution and the city hasn't," said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

It also puts members of the local delegation in an awkward spot as they go to Albany each year asking for more money for Buffalo schools – essentially shifting the cost burden to taxpayers in the suburbs.

The state already pays about 81 percent of the district's expenses, more than any of the other large urban school systems.

The mayor has given no indication whether he will contribute more, but in a recent meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board, he blamed the teacher contract for the district's budget problems, saying he has never negotiated a contract he can't afford and that he wasn't consulted about that one.

Still, some parents say the contract doesn't explain why Buffalo hasn't increased its $70.3 million contribution in so long.

"It's a poor excuse," Scott said.

The parent groups join a growing chorus of education advocates attempting to pressure the mayor to come up with more school funding.

Several education leaders, including Cash and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, used a news event last month to promote community schools as a platform to call on the mayor to help pay for the programs.

"I'm hereby calling upon the mayor and the Common Council to work with us," Rumore said at the event.

Others point to the fact that the city's contribution has remained stagnant at a time of economic prosperity that could be generating more revenue for operations is the city reassessed its property values.

Some parents acknowledge that part of the reason the city hasn't increased its contribution is because Buffalo's leaders worried the money wouldn't be well spent under past superintendents.

But that's changed, they say.

"We could understand in the past the mayor and the Common Council didn't want to pour money into the system," Radford said. "Things are going well now, though. We're happy as parents. Whether we had the contract or not does not change the fact the city hasn't increased its contribution."

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