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Editorial: Why are teacher ranks growing with student enrollment shrinking?

Turns out, a shrinking enrollment among the student body in Buffalo Public Schools does not equate to shrinking numbers of teachers and staff. It may be that this seemingly odd, inverse ratio is appropriate, but given the district’s strained finances, it is critical to examine that staffing.

A recent News story reports that enrollment in the city school district is down 3 percent since the 2014-15 school year. Meanwhile, the number of full-time employees – mostly teachers and aides – is up 14 percent during the same period.

The main increase in teachers and aides pertains to special education students (3 percent increase over the past four years) and English language learners (an increase of 44 percent). The result: Special education staff has increased 20 percent. Teachers and employees working with students learning English has gone up 87 percent.

Both special education students and English language learners require extra support to be successful in school. But, for example, is the increase in special education faculty due to an increase in the number of students with disabilities? Or, are other issues playing a role?

If the numbers of students in need are rising – or if too fewer educators were on hand to serve those already placed – then the additional teachers and aides would seem to be warranted. But it is important to ensure that students aren’t being unnecessarily directed into special education, where students struggling with issues unrelated to that program may not receive the kind of help they need. There is reason to wonder.

Recent statistics show that, across the country, 6.6 million students were being served by special education programs in the 2014-15 school year, accounting for 13 percent of all public school students. But, broken down by state, New York directed the greatest share of students – 17.8 percent – into special education. At the other end of the spectrum, Texas classified 8.6 percent of students as needing special education, meant for students with disabilities.

It’s important to know whether New York’s students are truly more in need of this support than others or if New York is simply doing a better – or worse – job of identifying which students require these services. Other high-referring states, including Massachusetts, Maine and Pennsylvania, also tended to be in the northeast.

It will also be valuable, and possible, to see which schools are being staffed up and what those student populations look like. Starting in the 2018-19 school year, school districts will have to submit to the state its proposed per-pupil funding for each school, along with demographic data. If the district’s plan is not approved, it will not receive its state aid increase.

This is critical in Buffalo, which to a worrisome extent has been digging into reserve funds to balance its budgets. Part of weaning itself from that troubling reliance is ensuring that its rising staff numbers are both necessary and appropriate.

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