N.Y. Irons Out Details Of Buffalo School Construction Blitz

By Joetta L. Sack — May 21, 2003 3 min read
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It’s been a long haul, but this summer, Buffalo, N.Y., will begin a 10-year plan to rebuild all of its school facilities at an estimated cost of $1 billion, now that the state has given the final go-ahead to pick up most of the tab.

Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, was expected to sign a bill last week clarifying the terms of a deal that will allow the Buffalo school district to issue bonds through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, a public agency that works to revitalize the area’s struggling economy.

The original plan to overhaul Buffalo’s schools was approved in 2000, but the state legislature had to approve a second bill earlier this month to clarify the financing mechanism in the first bill before the project could go forward.

Under the final plan, the state will pay for about 93 percent of the project’s costs through the bonds issued by the district, beginning with a $175 million bond that will finance the first phase of the work. The deal is unique in the state in that the Buffalo district will lease all its school facilities to the Erie County agency for the next 20 years, then the agency will lease those facilities back to the school district.

“This will be a complete renovation of all our buildings with no additional cost to the local taxpayer,” said Roy W. Rogers, the 47,000-student Buffalo district’s chief operating officer.

The district’s top priorities will be to completely renovate nine schools, upgrade science labs, make schools more energy-efficient, and wire for technology in several dozen other schools. The district, which has declining enrollments, recently decided to renovate fewer schools than originally planned.

The average age of Buffalo’s schools is more than 70 years, said Paul G. Buchanan, a district school board member who also sits on the state’s school building committee. Many are in bad shape because of deferred maintenance and a lack of renovations and upgrades.

“With our schools being so old, many don’t have the electrical capacity to put computers in the classroom,” Mr. Buchanan said. Another problem, he added, is that the state’s science assessments require laboratory work, and some district schools do not even have labs.

The deal is a much-needed bright spot on the district’s otherwise gloomy fiscal front. The state and the Buffalo city schools are looking for ways to significantly cut their education budgets because of revenue shortfalls. Mr. Buchanan said the construction costs are still justified because the state is bearing the bulk of the costs, and the money could not be used for other purposes.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, a Democrat who represents Buffalo and the surrounding area in the legislature’s lower house, sponsored the most recent legislation.

“In light of the serious fiscal problems facing our city, this legislation is critical to ensuring the safety of our schoolchildren and the viability of the Buffalo school district,” he said in a statement.

‘A Positive Position’

Once the nucleus for a regional manufacturing economy, Buffalo has seen its population drop from about 550,000 residents to 300,000 over the past three decades. School enrollment has steadily declined as well.

As part of the facilities plan, the school district is creating a strategy to deal with school enrollments, which are projected to continue a gradual decline in the next decade.

Since a desegregation order was lifted in the mid-1990s, the district has introduced a new program of school choice that, instead of assigning students to schools, divides the district into three boroughs and allows parents to choose any school within their borough.

Under the state construction plan, Buffalo will be authorized to build up to six new schools, but the plan will allow district officials to decide whether they need those schools and where they might be located, Mr. Buchanan said.

Buffalo now has about 70 public school buildings, with space for up to 65,000 students. It will close five facilities this year, and will likely close five to 10 more in coming years.

The district is also planning to restore several facilities listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mr. Buchanan said. One grand old high school, for instance, will undergo a $25 million renovation to incorporate a curriculum centered around technology. In addition, the district will catalog and preserve some significant artwork in some of those schools.

The district has already hired architects to draw plans for the first phase of the renovations and a private contractor to manage the construction details.

“We want to be in a position where, when there is an upturn in the economy, we have state-of-the-art facilities,” Mr. Buchanan said.

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