The finances of Buffalo Public Schools wound up last fiscal year $18 million better than expected, although still a deficit.
The school system's basic problem is that most years it spends more than it takes in, with costs rising rapidly and sometimes more than increases in state school aid. That has been made more complicated since the district and Buffalo Teachers Federation agreed on a contract, 12 years after the last pact.
Schools CFO Geoff Pritchard said the contract cost less than expected because far fewer teachers retired than anticipated, which saved millions. He said the long effort to raise revenues beyond school aid also put a few million more into the till.
"$34.9 million higher than the prior year. The bulk of that is related to state aid. Total expenditures are $868.3 million and that's actually $67.8 million higher than the prior year and the actual deficit, so we did not achieve a surplus," Pritchard said. "We knew we were going to have a deficit this year. The deficit was $20.7 million."
That keeps millions of dollars in the district's piggy bank, the fund balance.
"We finished the year with $182.6 million fund balance," Pritchard said. "I had projected in the four-year plan that was issued June 20 that we would have $164.4 million. So the improvement essentially is $18.2 million."
That does mean most teachers added another year to their future pensions, although the contract provides for teachers to pay more of their health insurance cost.
Another way the district spent less was that some 120 jobs remained unfilled during the fiscal year. That drew criticism from several School Board members because temporary or substitute teachers are sometimes in the classroom instead of full-time certified teachers.
Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman said certified teachers help keep classes within manageable size, like one she just visited.
"The class had 32 children, had ELLs in there, had special ed there and I'm thinking why don't I have an extra teacher or a teacher aide or assistant or someone in this classroom with 32 kids who are reading at below level and I don't understand why that's not being done and $11 million dollars is making it back into the general fund," Belton-Cottman said.
Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said some positions are hard to fill because of shortages, especially in special education and the sciences, and the district did add staff overall.