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Published in Print: October 31, 2001, as Buffalo Schools to Lay Off Nearly 500 Workers

Buffalo Schools to Lay Off Nearly 500 Workers

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Nearly 500 teachers, administrators, and other staff members in the 47,000-student Buffalo, N.Y., school district are scheduled to be laid off Dec. 1 in an effort to eliminate a $28 million budget shortfall.

The Buffalo school board voted 8-1 last week to cut the jobs and curtail many other school services in order to balance the $509 million budget for the current fiscal year, said Paul G. Buchanan, the president of the school board.

District leaders had been counting on receiving significantly more state aid than was ultimately provided, prompting the midyear cuts.

"This is going to be devastating," said Jack Coyle, a board vice president and the sole member who voted against the cuts approved on Oct. 24. "We were just starting to really turn around the district."

Reaching the decision was grueling, Mr. Buchanan said, and will have a far-reaching impact on students. Many will receive new teachers when administrators reassign teachers, based on seniority, to cover the lost positions. In addition, class sizes will increase, enrichment and after-school programs will be cut, and libraries will offer abbreviated hours, among other changes.

Some relief, however, may come through the supplemental budget, passed last week.

State lawmakers earmarked $200 million for education, and district administrators are now lobbying legislators for a share.

Unless additional money is provided quickly, notices of the layoffs will be handed out Nov. 1, Mr. Buchanan said. Employees with positions considered less essential will be first on the list, followed by others who have more seniority in the system. Of the 557 jobs to be eliminated, between 70 and 80 were not filled at the time of the vote.

Mr. Coyle criticized the layoffs as unfair.

A majority of those laid off—433 people—will be teachers, he said. The district should have instead sacrificed more administrative positions, he argued. But such jobs have already been squeezed out of the budget in an earlier round of cuts, Mr. Buchanan said. That effort, in conjunction with others, saved some $20 million, he said.

The president of the local teachers' union declined to comment on the board's strategy, but said union officials would be looking closely at the decisions made.

"We're focusing on what we can do to bring together needed resources, rather than fighting battles among ourselves," said Philip Rumore, the president of the 4,000-member Buffalo Teachers Federation, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

He did, however, call the cuts "devastating," adding that the changes "will do irreparable damage to students."

Moreover, he fears the layoffs will hurt the district's teacher-recruitment efforts. About 50 percent of the teaching force is expected to retire over the next few years, and Mr. Rumore said few beginning teachers will be attracted to a system that issues pink slips to its least senior teachers.

Crisis Is Statewide

The best the union can do for now is to provide teachers who lose their positions with dental and optical insurance for six months and negotiate with the district on medical benefits, Mr. Rumore said. The union will also offer career counseling.

A statewide budget crisis is forcing changes across New York.

In addition to Buffalo, the districts in New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers are deeply affected because they receive larger-than-average shares of their school funding from the state. The districts—the five most populous in the state—are prohibited from levying taxes to pay for schools and instead rely on money from their cities and the state.

Legislators in Albany passed a bare-bones state budget in August—four months after it was due—and pledged to districts that the legislature would offer a supplemental funding plan later.

But with the serious fiscal impact of the Sept. 11 terrorism in New York City, the lawmakers found themselves without enough resources to meet increased demands.

Though they did pass a supplemental budget for education, it offered only $200 million in additional aid, an amount many administrators say isn't nearly enough to solve districts' budget woes.

The Buffalo district receives about 80 percent of its money from the state, Mr. Buchanan said.

"We were told, 'Don't worry,'" he said. "Then the events of September 11 took place. Now, Albany says they don't have the money."

Officials in Yonkers delayed a plan to eliminate 1,400 jobs from the district earlier this month, but are still facing a significant budget deficit, said Eric W. Schoen, a spokesman for the district. Mayor John Spencer told local reporters late last week that it was unclear whether the district could still function the entire school year without eliminating some positions.

Meanwhile, administrators in New York City have transferred 200 employees to jobs within the district to avoid cutting positions, said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Vol. 21, Issue 9, Page 3

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