The Buffalo Public Schools will be getting $290 million in stimulus money – about the same amount of federal anti-poverty money the district gets in an entire decade.
One idea that Superintendent Kriner Cash has floated for some of the money: an online high school.
“I think that will address some needs of students who can go at their own pace and maybe advance out of high school sooner and into a post-secondary option sooner,” he told the School Board at a meeting last month.
“Why not? This is the kind of thing that’s going to be on the table and may address our students’ needs.”
Aside from that, Cash has so far spoken largely in generalities about how the district might spend the money. It’s a one-time infusion of aid, district officials emphasize, so it’s important that it not be used for ongoing costs that the district would not be able to sustain once the stimulus money has been spent.
District officials are looking at the windfall as an unprecedented opportunity to tackle projects that otherwise would be out of reach.
“It will address many of the things we thought were unaffordable in the past,” Geoff Pritchard, the district’s chief financial officer, told the School Board. “It’s going to change things.”
Cash said that the district will be careful to track how effectively the money is being used from the American Rescue Plan and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
“One of the things that’s clear in the guidance is that you’ve got to be accountable for this money,” he said. “We just have to spend more time on looking at student outcomes and the measure of those, how successful students are.”
Some community leaders have raised concerns about the district’s track record with spending the anti-poverty money that it gets each year, saying they fear that the district will do no better with its use of stimulus money.
The Buffalo Public Schools' annual Title I allocation is based largely on how many students in poverty there are in the schools, and is not contingent on making measurable improvements with the money.
The Urban Think Tank, a group of pastors and other community leaders in Buffalo, would like to see the mayor be given the ability to appoint three members to the School Board, and the Common Council appoint two members. Currently, all nine members are elected by city residents. A change would require state legislation, something that has been proposed several times before but gained little traction.
Members of the Urban Think Tank say that if the city has more direct oversight, it’s more likely that the district would be strategic in how it spends money, including the more than $70 million it gets each year from the city.
“Buffalo has spent money but has little or nothing to show in the way of improved results," said Kinzer Pointer, pastor of Agape Fellowship Baptist Church. "With this huge influx of dollars coming into the school district, the district cannot be left to its own devices to decide how that funding will be used."
The Buffalo Public Schools is holding a series of virtual sessions to get input from parents, teachers and others in the community regarding how to spend the aid.
Schools have quite a bit of latitude in deciding how to spend the money. However, each district has to use at least 20% of it to “measure and address the academic impact of lost instructional time on all students through the implementation of evidence-based interventions,” according to the federal Department of Education.
That could include many things, including summer programs and afterschool programs.
Each district has until July 1 to post online its plans for the stimulus money. Schools have until September 2024 to spend it.