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Buffalo Public Schools look to close $12.6 million deficit

By Sandra Tan, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 11--Buffalo Public Schools administrators are looking to cut special education, provide retirement incentives to teachers and bring an end to cosmetic surgery insurance coverage for union employees to save the district more than $10 million next school year.

But even with those cuts and an additional $15.5 million in state aid this year, that still leaves a deficit of $12.6 million that the district is struggling to close.

Projected general fund expenses for Buffalo schools currently exceed $818 million. That figure does not include more than $100,000 in expenses covered by grant money.

A community budget presentation was held Thursday night in the auditorium of Bennett High School to share the latest thinking about the budget, but only three community members showed up. Administrators easily outnumbered them.

No School Board members attended.

Chief Financial Officer Barbara Smith said the district's original $50 million budget deficit was reduced early on by requiring 10 percent departmental budget cuts, allocating $10 million in reserves, and closing school buildings, including the former Pinnacle Charter School building (the district plans to move those students to Harvey Austin School 97) and the now-vacant School 78.

The district also had previously budgeted for the closure of alternative schools 40 and 44, and the termination of the district's Middle Early College lease with Ellicott Development Co.Middle Early College students will be located this fall in the Math, Science, Technology Preparatory School building.

More recently, the district has also recommended:

-- Cutting $2.5 million in health insurance costs by negotiating the end of costly cosmetic surgery health insurance riders and offering a special incentive to teachers who retire and give up benefits from the district's health insurance plan.

The elimination of the cosmetic surgery rider would require union agreements.

The district is offering to provide monetary health benefit cards to members of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and Buffalo Council of School Administrators in exchange for the elimination of the riders.

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As noted by the district last month, the cosmetic surgery rider cost taxpayers $4.3 million, with 87 union members and retirees racking up $1.3 million in claims.

The separate retirement incentive would give teachers a one-time bonus for retiring and withdrawing from the district's health insurance coverage. Those who take the incentive would also receive annual payouts until age 65.

-- Cutting $7.6 million from special education by restructuring the way special-needs students receive teaching assistance when they are integrated in general education classrooms.

The equivalent of 712 full-time special-education teachers currently work in the Buffalo school district, the highest number in at least five years, according to the district.

Superintendent Pamela Brown said preliminary findings from an outside audit of the district's special-education services determined that the district has proportionally more special-education teachers than other similar districts.

Mary Pauly, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and leadership, pointed out that there are currently 85 cases in which a full-time special-education teacher is assigned to assist a general-education teacher in classrooms with only one or two students with special needs.

Under the new plan, she said, the district will have special-education teachers co-teach no fewer than five special-needs students when they are mainstreamed in general-education classrooms.

Special-education children in kindergarten through sixth grades who are placed in general-education classrooms would also receive co-teaching assistance in the subjects of English and math only, she said.

Smith, the financial officer, said she estimated about 75 special-education positions would be cut from the budget as a result of this change. Other administrators said it was too early to know if those cuts would result in layoffs since the teachers could be reassigned elsewhere.

Finally, Brown said she's also recommending some budget increases, including $3.1 million toward the expansion of extended day programs for students, and $160,000 to bring the district into closer compliance with the state's physical education standards.

"We know we have some work to do in order for the administration to come into full compliance with the commissioner's recommendations," Brown said.

Regarding the remaining $12.6 million deficit, Smith said the district is continuing to lobby the City of Buffalo for more funding and is looking at other cost-cutting measures in health insurance, vendor payments and additional department reductions.

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Brown said her five-year Strategic Plan was the guiding force in developing next year's budget. She said in allocating the limited resources the district has, the goal was "to keep as many cuts as far away from the classroom as possible."

The School Board is scheduled to discuss the budget again at its April 23 meeting and at its Finance and Operations Committee meeting April 30. The superintendent will present her proposed 2014-15 budget to the Common Council on May 5.

The final budget is slated for adoption on May 14.

To view a copy of the district's budget presentation, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone

email: stan@buffnews.com

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(c)2014 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Visit The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) at www.buffalonews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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