The Buffalo schools are coming under heightened scrutiny by the city’s control board, which says that if the district fails to eliminate a persistent budget deficit, it could take further action.
R. Nils Olsen Jr., chairman of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, said the control board could exercise one of several options if the district cannot come up with a satisfactory plan to cut costs to balance its budget.
Those options could include reporting the district to the state comptroller or voting to become a hard control board that would have to approve expenses over a certain threshold. That latter option, however, would also impact the City of Buffalo.
“The failure to provide what seems to be a basic education has been quite apparent,” Olsen said. “This is unacceptable whether we’re looking at it from a financial or a human cost.”
The control board, which was created by the state to oversee the finances of the City of Buffalo and the organizations it covers, has consistently cautioned the district against using up its reserves, rather than cutting recurring costs.
Late last year, the board directed the district to come up with a specific plan for how it could reduce its costs. In response, Olsen said the district came up with a broad “laundry list” of potential cuts that included kindergarten teachers, counselors, social workers and staff members who work with special-needs students. The control board determined the document to be incomplete and lacking in specifics.
“They just listed every possibility without saying what they would actually consider,” said Olsen, adding that he was skeptical the district would actually cut some of the items on its list. “Right now what we have is a laundry list. We don’t want a list of everything, some of which is pretty absurd.”
The school district’s budget director, Barb Smith, however, said the control board wanted a list of programs that are not required by the state or federal government, and that she provided them with just that.
“Are we going to cut kindergarten? Obviously not,” Smith said.
Smith added that some of the information the control board wants is not feasible to provide. For example, the control board wants the district to provide it with budget plans going four years out, but any of those plans would have to be approved by the School Board, the membership of which could change during that time.
Also, the control board asked the district to articulate how cuts to program and staff would affect academic performance, something that is difficult to pinpoint.
“They really need a deeper understanding of a school district of this size and what it takes to develop the budget,” Smith said.
Olsen, saying that he was concerned that the Board of Education hasn’t taken steps to correct the situation, took his appeal to parents on Tuesday night. Speaking to a group at the District Parent Coordinating Council, Olsen asked parents to get involved and express their concerns about how cuts might affect the classroom.
“We’re looking for allies, and you are an obvious partner,” he said.
“They’ve raised some serious concerns that we as parents need to be aware of,” said Samuel Radford, president of the parent council.
The control board joins the growing chorus of agencies expressing serious concerns with the state of the district and its operations. In recent months, critics have included high-profile business leaders, the state Education Department and even the mayor.
School officials have been somewhat candid about their financial troubles. The district is grappling with a near-$50 million budget deficit for the coming year.
The district has faced similar deficits before, and has historically relied on its reserved funds to make up the difference in spending.
Over the last two years, the district used $27 million of reserves to balance its budget. It plans to use $70 million more over the next four years. But eventually those funds will run out, and even after using those funds, the district has a remaining structural budget deficit of $100 million.
Board members met privately Monday to review options for closing the gap. The district is scheduled to present its budget to the public next week and adopt a final budget by May 12.