City government’s financial support of Buffalo public schools

We are now down to five weeks before Election Day.  The race for Mayor of Buffalo is getting more intense.  Sound-bite politics and TV ads (just from Brown so far) are starting to drown out any serious discussion about important issues. One of those issues concerns Buffalo public schools.

Over the years there have been various attempts to involve the mayor and the Buffalo Common Council in the management of the Buffalo School District.  The efforts have mostly gone nowhere.   The city government role in the District, of course, already exists through the city’s financial contribution to the operations of the system.

The major player in district finances is the State of New York, which during the current fiscal year provides $810 million – approximately 83 percent of the $972 million annual budget.  With that money come myriad responsibilities imposed by the State Education Department.

The City of Buffalo contribution to the school system this year is $70.8 million, an amount that has been pretty much the same over the past decade and a half, having been increased by just $500,000 four years ago.  City government has little to say about management of the schools.

The mayoral campaign has included some discussion about increasing the city’s contribution to the district.  Mayor Byron Brown attempts to make the most of the least, since he has generally avoided any major interest, financial or management-wise, in the schools.

The Democratic nominee for mayor, India Walton, has frequently discussed wanting to increase the city’s annual contribution to the district and to play some role in school management issues.  Her campaign website lists her education goals:

  • Oftentimes, schools are the only refuge students have from violence and poverty, the only place they are reliably fed, and the only environment where they have adult mentors with the resources and wherewithal to provide attention and guidance. We must fully fund high quality, trauma-informed, culturally- and linguistically-responsive public education, both universal pre-k and K-12.
  • My administration will establish a dedicated line of funding to Buffalo Public Schools, separate from the general fund, to enable them to begin to make necessary investments. We will establish partnerships between BPS and community organizations, which will include paid internships for students. And we will improve communication and transparency between the City and the Board of Education.

A September 18th story by Deidre Williams in the Buffalo News provides additional information:

[Walton] points to how much Rochester spends on schools as evidence that Buffalo can afford to do more …

Nearly $71 million, or 7.3% of the Buffalo district’s $972.5 million general fund, comes from the City of Buffalo. More than $119 million, or 14.2% of the Rochester school district’s $840.3 million general fund, comes from the City of Rochester…

Under a plan Walton and the Buffalo Teachers Federation support, Buffalo would allocate a percentage of its annual increase in sales tax revenue directly to the Buffalo Public Schools, which, unlike the Rochester district, would also continue to receive its own portion of sales tax revenue from Erie County.

For decades, the local share of sales tax in Erie County has been shared among local governments and school districts – including the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Public Schools – under a 30-year-old formula, said city officials. This has provided $48 million to $52 million to the district annually … 

“I acknowledge the separation and limitations of the office of the mayor from the Board of Ed,” Walton said. “But I think that as the leader of a city like Buffalo, there’s a certain amount of influence that you have and that it is the responsibility of the mayor to prioritize education over punishment.”

The City of Buffalo in the current fiscal year anticipates receiving about $86 million from the county sales tax, apart from the $48 million the school system receives directly from the county.  Sales tax collections increase most years but have occasionally decreased year-to-year.  A year-to-year increase in the range of three to four percent would generally be considered good.  A four percent increase in the City of Buffalo’s share of county sales tax receipts would provide the city with an additional $3.44 million.  As a hypothetical, giving the schools half of that increase would represent an additional $1.72 million.  That amount would provide an increase of 0.0018 percent in the schools’ annual revenues.

Byron Brown has a record to discuss and explain concerning his support for the Buffalo Public Schools.  While the city’s general fund contribution since he has been mayor has been nearly static, he reports providing additional funding in recent years including:

  • $2.9 million this year for the Mayor Brown’s Summer Youth Internship and Employment Program.
  • $1.5 million annually for school resource officers.
  • $967,307 for attendance teachers, social workers and music teachers when the district couldn’t afford to fund those positions.
  • $300,000 for four years of BAK Tablets for students.
  • $200,000 annually to Say Yes Buffalo starting in 2012 that increased to $500,000 beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
  • $150,000 annually for the Buffalo Peacemakers, who work to prevent conflicts among youth.
  • $80,000 annually for the Reading Rules program.
  • $25,000 to Say Yes in 2020-21 and $30,000 in 2021-22 for after-school programs and summer camp to prevent summer learning loss.

Some of the items on that list are not school district specific.  Interestingly, the study about Police Department operations often cited by Walton notes that “City-funded summer youth employment programs (such as the Mayor’s Summer Youth program in Buffalo) show impressive outcomes in preventing youth violence.”

The city budget’s largest revenue components are state aid (currently $161 million); property taxes ($142 million); and county sales tax ($86 million).  As previously noted there has been some discussion about a three percent increase in property taxes, which would produce an additional $4.26 million.  Aside from the school district contribution the city has other departmental operating obligations like parks, streets, etc. that would want or could use additional funding too.  Complicating things further, the current city budget includes $30 million in one-time federal Rescue Plan assistance that will not be available in the next budget.

How to sort all of this out?  If there was a rational discussion (a debate perhaps) between Walton and Brown the priorities for city financial resources could be reviewed.  Where do the schools fit in those priorities?  If the schools are to get more money will taxes be raised, maybe even more than three percent, or will other departments face cuts?  If so, which departments, and how much?

Policy goals and promises make for great campaign speeches but municipal budgets are anchored in dollars and cents.  The likely lack of any serious discussions over the next thirty-five days means the election will be decided by slogans and sound-bites.  Then, on January 1, reality will run smack into the face of whoever is sitting in the mayor’s office.