Imagine you are walking down the railroad tracks. The rails stretch hundreds of miles in the distance over flat terrain. The weather is clear. Far ahead, 30 minutes or more away, you can just perceive a train heading straight for you. You would get off the tracks, right?
The Buffalo School Board wouldn’t. Within seconds of being obliterated, it would be still be sauntering along the line, indifferent to its peril and that of its students and its community.
It’s a fair analogy to the situation described by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority. For months, the control board has been agitating to get the district to respond to a crisis in its finances, but it hasn’t.
Late last year, for example, the board directed the district to produce a specific plan for lowering its costs. In response, the district drew up what Authority Chairman R. Nils Olsen Jr. called a “laundry list” of potential cuts that ran the gamut of spending. “They just listed every possibility without saying what they would actually consider,” he said.
The control board found the document to be incomplete and lacking in specifics and, in truth, no one should have expected anything different. That’s the same complaint the State Education Department has leveled against the district since the arrival of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown. Puke up some paperwork and hope the problem goes away.
As if to prove Olsen’s point, administrators on Thursday threw out some ideas at a community hearing: cut special education, offer retirement incentives to teachers and end the union’s cosmetic surgery rider.
But the Buffalo Teachers Federation has made clear that it won’t give up the rider unless it’s part of a new contract, which the union has shown no interest in negotiating. And even if the district produced all of those savings, it would still be left with a $12.6 million deficit.
The financial problem, Olsen and others say, is structural. As he noted in a Feb. 27 Another Voice in The Buffalo News, the district has balanced its budget over the past two years by siphoning off $27 million of its reserves and it plans to use another $70 million over the next four years. That strategy, as Olsen observes, is unsustainable. And it still leaves the district with a projected structural budget deficit of around $100 million. The control board has consistently warned the district against draining the reserve funds, to no avail.
In the meantime, teachers and administrators haven’t had a new contract in 10 years, though that is partly their own fault; mandated step salary increases continue to pile up; health insurance costs rise; retirement obligations are crushing; and charter schools take an ever-larger bite.
Yet, for all that, and despite sounding an alarm months ago, Olsen says the district has failed to develop a “coherent plan” to address its problems. So, replicating the hand-holding that State Ed has had to do with the district, the control board has ordered it to identify funds it will use to offset the structural deficit and to discuss “all likely negative effects on student learning outcomes.”
The control board is limited in what it can or should do.
If the board votes to reject the district’s budget plan – due May 1 – it could report the district to the state comptroller. What would happen then is open to conjecture.
The control board’s enabling legislation gives it jurisdiction over both the City of Buffalo and the school district. It is currently in an advisory, rather than a control, mode because of the significant progress the city has made in putting its finances in order.
If it were to return to a control period – a possibility – it could not restrict its oversight to the school district. The city, which no longer requires the board’s close monitoring, would also come back under its thumb. Thus, if the board determined that a wage freeze or other restrictions needed to be reimposed on the school district, it would also affect city employees, as well. That would be unfortunate and unfair – and maybe unavoidable.
Of course, the district could act on its own, but its options are few, and would be disastrous in a district already unable to properly educate too many children: layoffs of teachers, guidance counselors, teacher aides and others; program cuts; bigger class sizes, And it’s worse today than it would have been had the district acted sooner.
Olsen is seeking partners to join in the task of attacking this problem. He has already approached the District Parent Coordinating Council, where he found an attentive audience. He would also like, in concert with other parties, to approach the State Legislature about useful changes in the law, in particular the Triborough Amendment, which keeps provisions of an expired contract in force until a new one is adopted.
While there are reasons for some such protection for unions, Triborough goes too far in that it disincentivizes unions from bargaining in good faith during a time of economic weakness. Better to keep the existing contract than to risk the likelihood of having to make concessions in a new one.
It’s a necessary change, but one the State Assembly historically has had no interest in pursuing. Its theory: Better to keep the existing arrangement than to risk a certain union backlash at the polls. Still, it’s good that someone is talking about this and looking for a way out. It’s going to be messy, either way, so there’s no downside to trying.
Olsen notes that because the district’s financial problem is structural, the district’s leadership has only modest influence on it. Modest or not, strong leadership is needed, and that begins with next month’s School Board elections.