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Budget gap leaves city schools with some tough choices

The budget season didn’t bring nearly as much money from the state as the Buffalo Public Schools had hoped.

Employee costs are on the rise. Payments to charter schools keep going up.

And for the third consecutive year, the school district continues to move full speed ahead funding its reform effort, the New Education Bargain.

It all leads to the school district staring at an $8.5 million budget shortfall for the coming year and facing some tough choices about how to reduce its expenses – both now and into the future.

Projections show that deficit only grows in the years ahead.

School administrators have been rolling out budget details over the past couple of weeks as they put together a financial plan for the 2018-19 school year in anticipation of presenting a balanced budget to the Board of Education for approval by May 16.

The school district has ideas on how to eliminate that $8.5 million deficit, but some of those details will have to be worked out over the next week or so, said Geoffrey F. Pritchard, chief financial officer for the Buffalo Public Schools.

“We feel it is a fiscally prudent budget that continues the New Education Bargain into the third year,” Pritchard said.

Some of the highlights:

  • State aid. The school district is expecting $764.7 million in state aid for next year, up $22.6 million from this year. That’s about what administrators were projecting, even though the district was lobbying for a significantly higher amount. District officials were disappointed that among the state’s Big 5 school districts, Buffalo received the smallest percentage increase in foundation aid, which funds basic operations.
  • Aid from Buffalo. The school district last year asked the city for a $500,000 increase each year for four years. The district succeeded in getting the half-million dollars in its current budget for a total of $70.8 million from the city, but next year is still in question as the city prepares its own budget.
  • Rising costs. Employee compensation, payments to charter schools and transportation are driving increases in the budget. Employee compensation is up more than 4 percent due to anticipated pay raises from contracts settled the past two years with the teachers, substitute teachers and administrators. Payments to charter schools – thanks to an increase in the charter enrollment – are expected to go up $5.8 million next year, along with $2.9 million in transportation costs associated with four new charters receiving busing, Pritchard said.
  • Tapping into reserves. The school district plans to use $19 million of its reserve fund to help balance the budget.
  • New Education Bargain. The school district continues to place a priority on funding Superintendent Kriner Cash’s reform efforts across the district. That includes funding for lower class sizes in the early grades. State funding also includes $18.3 million set aside for after-school and Saturday programming at designated “community schools,” a component of the New Education Bargain.
  • Four-year plan. Based on its four-year plan, district administrators now project a cumulative deficit of $79.6 million between the 2017-18 and 2020-21 school years unless the district reduces costs or increases revenues. The plan calls for using $51 million in reserves over that period, but that still leaves a cumulative deficit of $28.6 million, according to district figures.

The School Board is scheduled to approve the district’s four-year plan on Wednesday before sending it to the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority for review.

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