By R. Nils Olsen Jr. and Jeanette Mongold-Robe
The Buffalo School District is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis, the resolution of which can only have a devastating impact on its students.
Graduation rates are roughly 50 percent, falling to 35 percent after eliminating schools with admission requirements. Only nine of 53 schools are in good standing. In addition, there is a projected budget deficit of $135 million over the next three years.
Efforts to remove the superintendent divert attention and will have little effect on the problem. The district’s budget issues are structural: teachers and administrators out of contract for 10 years; mandated annual step increases to salaries; ever-escalating costs of the 100 percent district-funded health insurance plans for teachers and administrators; unimaginable current non-pension retirement obligations of more than $1.8 billion; and increased charter school costs.
Over the last two years, the district used $27 million of reserves to continue current operations and plans to use $70 million more over the next four years. Using reserves is unsustainable, as these are one-time funding sources.
Even after using these funds, the district has a remaining projected structural budget deficit of roughly $100 million. Being dependent primarily on the city and state for funding, its only choice is to reduce costs.
To do so, it will need to slash teaching positions, increase class sizes, eliminate bus aides and reduce non-classroom teachers (such as guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers), non-mandated teacher aides, and non-mandated programs (including before- and after-school programs, summer school, athletics and supplemental music and arts). The past wage freeze imposed by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority has provided savings of $135 million; without these funds the district would have already been forced to implement drastic cuts.
There has been no action by the Board of Education to develop a coherent plan to address the projected budget shortfalls. Accordingly, the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority has required the district to identify funds to be used to offset the structural deficit and to discuss all likely negative effects on student learning outcomes.
The district’s crisis threatens the education of its students while causing damage to the City of Buffalo. A school district in crisis can only have a negative impact on its hosting community. It is critical that children are able to obtain a quality education. A good start would be for all engaged organizations and individuals to work together to achieve reasonable legislative change and affordable labor agreements with district teachers and administrators.
R. Nils Olsen Jr. is chairman of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority. Jeanette Mongold-Robe is the authority’s executive director.