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Buffalo schools grapple with $10.2 million budget deficit

Going into the budget season, Buffalo school leaders had two options to prevent a budget crisis – find more money or make cuts.

The first option isn't panning out as they hoped, with funding increases from the city and state falling $33 million short of what Superintendent Kriner Cash wanted. And some School Board members say it's unrealistic to think those entities will come up with much more money in the future.

That leaves the district looking at a $10.2 million deficit for the coming year, and facing some tough choices about how to reduce its expenses.

That gap also will have an impact on budgets for the next three years, with administrators now projecting a cumulative $116.5 million deficit during that period if they don't reduce expenses. A preliminary plan calls for using $43.1 million in reserves, but that still leaves a $73.4 million cumulative deficit.

"We still have a $70 million deficit we have to balance," said Geoff Pritchard, the district's chief financial officer, during a meeting of the School Bard Wednesday night. "We have to be able to balance it by other measures over the next four years."

The deficit is largely driven by costs related to the new teacher contract and Cash's ambitious plan for school improvement.

The administration presented its draft budget to the board at Wednesday's meeting, painting a bleak picture largely driven by the fact it was unable to secure the funding increases it hoped for from the city and state.

"We have to figure out how we're going to do this over the next four years," Cash said. "Now is the time."

Although Cash rebuffed some board members' concerns that the district is headed for insolvency, he sounded less optimistic than several months ago when he hoped the city and state would come through with larger funding increases.

Cash initially asked state lawmakers for a $65 million increase over last year's $721 million allocation. The state came through with a $27.1 million increase.

The superintendent also wanted city taxpayers to contribute an extra $8.5 million, after staying flat at $70 million for the past decade. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown committed an extra $500,000 to the city schools – money originally earmarked for the Say Yes scholarship program.

"What I'm afraid is we're creating this time bomb," said board member Larry Quinn. "I don't think we have the luxury of papering over this. We're going to create something that will explode in everyone's face in two or three years."

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In an initial plan, district staff outlined several possibilities for reducing expenses. Those possibilities included cutting physical education teachers, scaling back plans for lower class sizes and reducing the community schools program that has become the centerpiece of Cash's reform efforts.

Cash also noted that the growth in the district's staff has outpaced the growth in student enrollment, suggesting the district may need to adjust in that area.

Already, parents are lining up to push back against any cuts to school programs. About a half dozen parents from Frederick Law Olmsted 156 showed up at Wednesday's meeting to speak out against potential cuts to their programs.

"I'm very concerned with changes to the staff, time allotment and funding," said parent Carmen Lovullo.

Cash, however, said he was not aware of any changes to the music program at Olmsted.

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