R. Nils Olsen Jr. is on the right track. The chairman of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority wants to have more control of the city school district, but not the City of Buffalo, itself. He has good reason to worry about the state of school finances.
The control board, established in 2003, went to a “soft,” or advisory, status this summer and, in regards to city finances, it was the right decision. The city’s balance sheet has become much more stable under the influence of the control board and a chastened City Hall.
Not so the school district. Its finances remain chaotic and with the district facing an “imminent fiscal crisis,” Olsen believes it may be wise to return the board to “hard” control status for the school district.
The questions are whether the law creating the control board allows that, and whether the board should give new Superintendent Pamela C. Brown time to lead the district onto firmer ground.
The timing of those questions conveniently meshes. As the board’s lawyer looks into the legality of resuming a control period for the school district only, authority member George K. Arthur said any move to return to a control period would not take place before the completion of the district’s next budget, in May or June of 2013.
The crisis could hit sooner, however. Because the school district and the city teachers union have failed to reach an agreement on a new evaluation system, the district stands to forfeit $33.4 million in state aid. If that happens – and it’s hard to see today how it won’t – the crisis will be immediate.
It is surprising that the control board is only now exploring the legality of returning to control status over the school district. The likelihood of that need has been obvious for several years, as the city’s financial picture brightened while the school district’s darkened.
If the board does adopt a hard status for the district, it would have authority over union contracts and spending, allowing it to stabilize district finances.
The board’s lawyer, James L. Magavern, should complete his research as soon as possible so that, if he concludes the current law prohibits returning to control status for just one of the entities it was created to monitor, there is time for the State Legislature to revise the law. Indeed, it would be wise for local members of the Assembly and Senate to begin drafting such legislation now so that, if necessary, it can be introduced as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, the school district and Buffalo Teachers Federation need to find a way out of the impasse that has kept them from negotiating a new evaluation agreement. The stumbling block is the involuntary transfer of teachers deemed necessary by the district to preserve other state funding, but which has been ruled in violation of the labor contract.
It’s a difficult problem, but adults of good intention have solved problems more difficult. The only reason the Buffalo School District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation wouldn’t be able to is if they are unwilling to confront complex realities and then act.