The Buffalo School Board approved a $794 million general fund budget Wednesday as part of a spending plan that totals $908 million when all the grants the district receives are included.
The district’s budget process began in November and, for the first time, gave principals and their building leadership teams the ability to directly determine some of the staffing levels in their schools.
However, the final, two-week budget approval process represents the briefest approval process of any of the “Big Five” city school districts in the state. The short time frame limited both districtwide public input into the budget and the district’s own lobbying efforts with the city.
The 2013-2014 budget document outlines $14 million in increased spending, largely because of rising costs of employee benefits, despite the net reduction of employees by 30 and budget savings because of the closure of some school buildings.
Superintendent Pamela Brown said she was “ecstatic” about the budget’s adoption and called it the product of a long, collaborative process.” She said the budget safeguards and prioritizes classroom instruction above all else.
“We’ve looked at those strategic priorities and really reconfirmed the fact that the core of our work is what happens in the classroom every day,” she said.
The budget was approved, 6-1, with board member Jason McCarthy voting against. Board members Ralph Hernandez and Louis Petrucci were absent for the final vote.
Many board members expressed deep criticism Wednesday about the limited funding provided by the city and state.
“Every year we go through these gyrations where we’re trying to figure out the least critical area where we have to sacrifice the quality of education we’re providing our children,” said board member John Licata.
Among the highlights, the budget:
• Will cut 50 school bus aides through attrition for a savings of $500,000.
• Should save about $2 million by consolidating or eliminating many classes with enrollments of fewer than 15 students each.
• Will consolidate and lengthen elementary in-school suspension programs for a savings of $720,000. Instead of half-day programs at 19 elementary schools, in-school suspension programs will be lengthened to full-day programs centered at five school sites.
• Includes the closure of six schools, many of them temporary “swing” schools used to house students while their home schools were being renovated as part of the district’s reconstruction plan. Those closures are expected to save the district more than $800,000.
• Will spend $31 million in reserves as part of its deficit-reduction plan.
• Adopts a new “school-based budgeting” system that gives principals and their leadership teams more autonomy to determine their own staffing needs.
Based on the 84-page budget, it appears that more principals opted to spend their discretionary dollars on core subjects, while giving up more teachers in instrumental music and foreign languages.
• Would keep class sizes unchanged from this year.
• Will increase city funding by $171,000 to pay for more attendance teachers.
The budget also adds money to enhance certain programs. Those include the creation of STAR Academy, a new program aimed at serving over-age and undercredited students; the expansion of extended-day programs and related costs at low-performing schools; and the purchase of more core-subject textbooks so high school students will no longer have to share them.
The budget for the 2013-2014 school year was approved barely two weeks after the preliminary budget was unveiled before the Buffalo Common Council on May 9. Among the five largest school districts in the state, which include Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City, Buffalo’s formal adoption process is by far the shortest.
The Syracuse school board adopted a preliminary budget on March 19, two weeks before the mayor presented her budget to the Common Council. The board adopted a final budget on April 10.
In Yonkers, the superintendent released a proposed budget on April 15, but had made a budget lobbying presentation to the city in January.
And in Rochester, the district most similar to Buffalo in student enrollment, the superintendent issued a proposed budget on March 25.
That preliminary budget was accompanied by a detailed press release outlining the budget priorities and highlighted six upcoming public sessions to review the budget, including two public hearings in April.
That stands in stark contrast to Buffalo, where none of the above happened after the proposed budget was released, except for a single finance committee meeting. Instead, school board members met privately, in small groups with Chief Financial Officer Barbara J. Smith.
Smith did, however, also meet with members of the District Parent Coordinating Council, a gesture that was greatly appreciated, said DPCC President Samuel Radford.
Superintendent Brown said that once the district’s strategic plan is complete, more people will understand the district’s future priorities. Regarding the budget approval timeline, she said, “We’re open to any good ideas on how we can improve on the process.”