The Buffalo Board of Education is expected to approve a $797 million budget Wednesday, less than two weeks after publicly unveiling the preliminary budget to the Common Council.
The financial plan would put into place a new budget process that would give principals more autonomy but generally leave the public without any formal input.
Unlike suburban school districts that tend to embrace a more open process and hold public hearings to gain voter support before the budget comes up for a public vote, the Buffalo Public Schools have no independent taxing authority and no separate budget vote. The only public hearing on the budget was held by the Council on May 9, the same night the preliminary 2013-14 budget was introduced.
“At the end of the day, we are stuck working the numbers that we have,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Sharon Belton-Cottman. “You can talk about it until you’re green in the face. At the end of the day, you still have to balance the budget and move forward.”
She and other district leaders said the current budget cuts costs while protecting the classroom. The $797 million base budget for the next school year would increase spending by $14 million because of rising employee benefit costs despite the net elimination of more than 30 full-time jobs.
Board members said they have been getting information and providing input on the budget for months as part of their Finance Committee deliberations. Though the budget does not have to be approved until June 30, board members rarely take that long to approve it.
Board member John B. Licata said the district needs to start sending out 30-day layoff notices before the end of the school year, even though it’s not yet clear how many layoffs will be necessary because final retirement and attrition numbers aren’t yet complete.
Outside of Finance Committee meetings, the board doesn’t have open budget work sessions. Instead, the district sets up separate budget meetings, including several over the last week, with a few board members at a time to circumvent the Open Meetings Law.
Belton-Cottman said the small groups “encourage civil conversation.”
“If we didn’t have small group meetings, everything we breathe would be in The News,” she said. “We can’t have a decent conversation without being scrutinized.”
Questions have surfaced regarding the budget’s impact on individual schools because this year’s budget gives school principals much more discretion in the shaping of its own staff through a process known as “school-based budgeting.” This model, common in many school districts, empowers leadership teams at each individual school to determine how they want to staff their schools beyond bare state requirements.
A number of principals said they appreciate having more control over their own building staffing since they know their school population best.
“I think they like choosing. I think they like building their program,” said Dawn M. DiNatale, principal of Makowski Early Childhood Center and president of the Elementary Principals Association. “In the age now where it’s the principal who’s held accountable for the students’ achievement in their building, principals need to have more control.”
The district provided each school with a base level of funding for positions such as administrators, core subject teachers, guidance counselors and staff for state-mandated class offerings for art, music and physical education, principals said.
Staff allocations were made based on projected student enrollment.
This year, the district also assigned staff for special-education students and English language learners. Staff for “flagship” programs such as gifted-and-talented programs was also maintained.
But many other support positions and unmandated staff were stripped out of each school’s base budget. Instead, schools were allocated certain federal and state block grant dollars to spend on staff as each school leadership team sees fit.
At Makowski, for instance, DiNatale opted to “buy” more reading and math teachers, social workers and in-school alternative education staff, while at Olmsted School at Kensington, Principal Michael Gruber chose to have more foreign language and instrumental music teachers and teachers aides.
Monday, the district was unable to share school-by-school breakdowns or provide information about which schools are receiving fewer dollars because of declining enrollment. Even so, some principals say they prefer the autonomy, even though they receive fewer dollars.
The new system is considered more equitable, more flexible and less “mystifying” than past budgeting practices, principals said. But smaller elementary schools are finding it hard to maintain full-time staffing under the new budget model.
In addition, some schools that have been considered overfunded by the district in the past, have also lost many unmandated positions but weren’t given enough dollars to get them back.
Certain school offerings, such as the district’s instrumental music programs, are also apparently taking a backseat to schools that want more staff focused on core academics.
Instrumental music teacher Nick DelBello, for instance, has spent a couple of years building up the band programs at School 81 and Riverside Institute of Technology. He started two bands at School 81 after sifting through a pile of instruments that had sat around unused for years, he said. Now, he’s uncertain whether he’ll have a place at any school.
In response to a News inquiry, district spokeswoman Elena Cala said six music teachers teaching noncredited courses will be cut from the budget. There is no specific mention of music teacher cuts in the district’s budget summary, and a News request to speak with the supervisor of the district’s music program was refused.