The mayor was mostly without intervention, despite the myriad of problems in the district. The city froze school aid during his tenure. Challenger India Walton proposes to increase the assistant.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles assessing the state of the city, 15 years after Bryon Brown took office. Our first story was about city hall enforcement of its fair housing laws. Today; Buffalo Public Schools.
Buffalo schools were plagued by low attendance and low academic achievement when Byron Brown took office 15 years ago. Not much has changed since.
The mayor is not directly responsible for the school district. This rests with the nine members of its elected education council and the superintendent they oversee. But many major city mayors have used the power of the stock market and the chair of bullies to lobby for better schools. Brown was more passive.
“The good thing is that he wasn’t involved. The downside is that he was not involved, ”said James Sampson, a former member of the Board of Education who served as president in 2016.
“When you are the leader of a city and the future of the city – especially economically and from a development point of view – is linked to the quality of the education system, you think you would like to be involved in that. “
Brown increased the city’s direct funding to the district from just $ 500,000 during his tenure, to $ 70.8 million. To keep pace with inflation, it should have increased by about $ 25 million.
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The city’s current commitment represents 7.3 percent of the district’s $ 972.5 budget for this fiscal year. The state finances the lion’s share of the budget, 83.3%.
The town of Brown has selectively funded other programs, including money for police in schools and family support services through Say Yes to Education. The amount varies from year to year. This year it’s about $ 2.3 million.
“He was very creative in finding ways to bring money to the district through specific initiatives,” said Samuel Radford, co-chair of We The Parents of WNY, an education advocacy group.
Brown, through his campaign team, declined the Investigative Post’s request for an interview for this story. The mayor did not come up with any major education initiatives during his campaign.
India Walton, who won the Democratic primary in June, wants the mayor’s office to be more engaged with the school district and has offered to increase the city’s aid by $ 20 million in her first term.
“The mayor of Buffalo is the most influential office in the city. And it has not been used to its full capacity to be able to define the culture that puts the education of our children first, ”Walton said.
Schools in difficulty
The district has long struggled with issues such as chronic absenteeism and low proficiency rates among its students.
Only 34 percent of students had satisfactory attendance rates when teaching was completely remote, from the start of the last school year until March. The previous year, only 33 percent of students had satisfactory attendance.
Students also scored poorly on standardized tests that assess reading, writing and math skills. In the 2018-19 school year, the last time the tests were administered, only 25 percent achieved a proficiency level in reading and writing. Only 20 percent were proficient in math.
The graduation rate last year jumped 11.6 percent from the previous year to 76.3 percent. But more than 20% of graduates have been exempted from taking mandatory Regents exams, which have been canceled due to the pandemic.
The result of poor student performance: Employers say many high school graduates lack the basic skills needed for a job, and professors say many Buffalo graduates need a catch-up before to be able to follow a college or university program.
“These days, cities that have a diverse and talented educated workforce are the ones that will thrive. And those who don’t will be the ones who decline. It is really that simple, ”said Larry Quinn, Member of the Education Council from 2014 to 2019.
The city’s contribution is low
The school district’s budget has grown dramatically since Brown took office, and the state has provided almost all of the increase. State aid now stands at $ 810 million, or 83.3% of the district budget.
The city’s stagnant funding under Brown has drawn criticism in some quarters, most notably from Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
“He did not improve the amount of money even though we asked for additional money to help improve our children’s education. It’s a shame. It’s almost like he’s turned his back on the kids in town, ”Rumore told Investigative Post.
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Others argue the district, with an annual budget of just under $ 1 billion and an additional $ 289 million in federal assistance for the ongoing pandemic, does not need more money. .
“I never really thought funding was the problem. I think the real problem is reform, ”said Quinn, the former board member.
Brown and the Common Council may have been reluctant to increase funding because of a state law that prohibits cities from reducing their educational assistance. In other words, any increase would be permanent, unless there is a decrease in the city’s income.
Buffalo schools are funded differently from local suburban districts, where voters approve budgets and tax levies each year. In these districts, municipal revenues generally represent a much larger share of school budgets than the large urban districts in the northern part of the state. For example, property taxes represent 65 percent of the Williamsville School District budget.
Buffalo uses about 50 percent of its property tax revenues to fund its schools. However, this only represents 7.3 percent of the district budget. This figure is 12.1% in Rochester and 15% in Syracuse.
The mayor has found other ways to increase funding for schools, albeit modestly.
His most significant investment has been in policing for schools. The work carried out by a dozen officers and supervisors includes managing situations in schools, security during events and finding chronically absent students. The cost to the city is approximately $ 1.5 million per year.
The city also helps fund Say Yes, which offers college scholarships to graduates and students and their social and health services to families. The City’s contribution this year is $ 530,000, which represents 3 percent of the annual budget of the Say Yes budget of $ 16.5 million.
David Rust, CEO of Say Yes, said city funding is “really important because it allows us to place social workers in buildings who can work with families on access to food, clothing, housing, assistance, interventions, access to employment “.
In the past, some of Say Yes’s money was spent to buy 500 tablets for students and to make up for a district funding gap for music programs in 2013.
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Brown continued a summer reading program started under Mayor Anthony Masiello. Brown’s Summer Reading Challenge, where students compete for prizes by reading and submitting book abstracts, is sponsored by local businesses and foundations.
In June, Brown launched a “Earn as You Learn” program that paid 154 high school students $ 12.50 an hour this summer while they were studying to graduate. The cost: $ 251,482.
Different levels of involvement
Brown has been more passive than his two predecessors – for better or for worse.
Anthony Masiello has successfully championed a billion-dollar, mostly state-funded program that funded major upgrades to most of the city’s school buildings. He also unsuccessfully asked for the power to appoint several members to the school board.
James Griffin sometimes openly criticized the city’s schools and presented candidates for the board, sometimes successfully. He was also known to adjust the city’s contribution to the district based on what the state gave. For example, if the state increased funding, Griffin would reduce the city’s allocation by a similar amount.
Sampson, the former chairman of the school board, said Brown was “always very accessible. But he meticulously stayed clear of the controversies that were unfolding at the time.
Louis Petrucci, the current chairman of the board, and Sharon Belton-Cottman, his predecessor, declined to comment on this story. Petrucci referred Investigative Post to Central District board member Paulette Woods, who said, “The mayor has had a very cooperative relationship with the school board.”
But she sees room for more involvement.
“I would like to see the mayor increase aid, maintain buildings and athletic fields and take leadership to help us with this COVID mask problem. I think there are things the mayor – and whoever the future mayor is – will have to work with us, ”Woods said.
During her campaign, Walton said she wanted the city to be more involved in schools than it was under Brown.
“It really concerns me, the direction we are heading in, that it is not a priority in our municipal government,” she said.
To begin with, Walton wants to increase aid to the school by $ 20 million gradually over four years. The additional money would be funded by increases in the city’s share of sales tax revenue and a redistribution of money budgeted for the police department. The $ 20 million increase would allow the city to contribution of $ 90.8 million.
Walton, who previously worked as a school nurse, said she would appoint an education expert as the district liaison. Brown’s deputy mayor, Ellen Grant, currently serves as the school liaison, but Walton said she wanted more expertise in the post.
His platform calls for a shift away from police solutions to problems in schools in favor of more social services. Walton said she would also work to improve broadband access for students and their families.
The city and the school district mix the funds in a joint bank account. Since 2018, The town hall relied on district funds at the start of each fiscal year, when the city’s inflow of income slows down and its cash flow turns negative. Walton wants to separate these funds so that district money can only be used for district purposes.
Woods, who chairs the school board’s finance committee, said of the town: “They have to manage their finances. All I can say is that we are managing ours very well.