Sep 22


Brown’s tepid support of Buffalo schools

Mayor has been mostly hands-off, despite the district's myriad of problems. City has frozen school aid during his tenure. Challenger India Walton proposes increasing assistance.

Editor’s note: This is a second in a series of stories assessing the state of the city, 15 years after Bryon Brown took office. Our first story dealt with City Hall’s enforcement of its fair housing laws. Today; Buffalo public schools.

Buffalo schools were plagued by poor attendance and low student achievement when Byron Brown took office 15 years ago. Not much has changed since then.

The mayor is not directly responsible for the school district. That falls on the nine members of its elected Board of Education and the superintendent they supervise. But many big-city mayors have used the power of the purse and the bully pulpit to push for school improvements. Brown has been more hands-off.

“The positive thing was, he was not involved. The negative thing was, he was not involved,” said James Sampson, a former Board of Education member who served as president in 2016. 

“When you’re the leader of a city and the future of the city — particularly economically and from a development perspective — is linked to the quality of the education system, you’d think you’d want to be involved in that.”

Brown has increased the city’s direct funding to the district by only $500,000 during his tenure, to $70.8 million. To keep pace with inflation, it would need to have increased by around $25 million. 

Listen to our story produced for WBFO

The city’s current commitment accounts for 7.3 percent of the district’s $972.5 budget this fiscal year. The state funds the lion’s share of the budget, 83.3 percent.

The city under Brown has selectively funded other programs, including money for police officers in the 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 has been very creative in finding ways to get 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 staff, declined Investigative Post’s interview request for this story. The mayor has not proposed any major education initiatives during his campaign.

India Walton, who won the June Democratic primary, wants the mayor’s office more engaged with the school district and has proposed increasing city aid by $20 million during her first term in office.

“Mayor of Buffalo is the most influential position in the city. And it’s not been used to its fullest capacity to be able to set the culture that prioritizes education for our children,” Walton said.

Struggling schools 

The district has long struggled with issues like chronic absenteeism and low proficiency rates among its students. 

Only 34 percent of students had satisfactory attendance rates when instruction was fully remote, from the start of last school year through March. The year before, only 33 percent of students had satisfactory attendance.

Students also scored poorly on standardized tests that gauge reading, writing and math skills. In the 2018-19 school year, the last time the tests were given, only 25 percent scored at a proficient level in reading and writing. Only 20 percent were proficient in math.

The graduation rate last year jumped 11.6 percent from the year before to 76.3 percent. But more than 20 percent of the graduating class were exempted from passing mandated Regents exams, which were cancelled because of the pandemic. 

The result of poor student achievement: Employers say many high school graduates lack the basic skills necessary to hold a job, and professors say many Buffalo graduates require remediation before they can handle college or university curriculum. 

“In today’s day and age, the cities that have a diverse and talented educated workforce are the cities that are going to grow. And the ones that don’t are going to be the ones that decline. It’s really that simple,” said Larry Quinn, Board of Education member from 2014 to 2019.

City contribution is small

The school district’s budget has grown dramatically since Brown took office and the state has underwritten virtually all of the increase. State aid now totals $810 million, accounting for 83.3 percent of the district’s budget.

The city’s stagnant funding under Brown has drawn criticism in some quarters, including from Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

“He hasn’t improved the amount of money even though we’ve sought additional money to help improve the education of our kids. That is a disgrace. It’s almost like he’s turned his back on the kids in the city,” Rumore told Investigative Post.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube

Others contend the district, with an annual budget of just shy of $1 billion, and another $289 million in federal pandemic aid on the way, does not need more money.

“I never really felt funding was the issue. I think the real issue 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 school aid. In other words, any increase would be permanent, barring a decrease in city revenues.

Buffalo schools are financed differently than local suburban districts, where voters annual approve budgets and tax levies. In those districts, revenue from municipalities typically account for a much larger share of school budgets than large urban districts upstate. For example, property taxes account for 65 percent of the budget for the Williamsville school district.

Buffalo uses about 50 percent of its property tax revenue to fund its schools. That accounts for only 7.3 percent of the district’s budget, however. That figure is 12.1 percent in Rochester and 15 percent in Syracuse.

Other funding 

The mayor has found other ways to increase funding to schools, albeit modestly.

His most substantial investment has been in police assigned to schools. Work performed by about 10 officers and supervisors includes handling situations in schools, providing security at events and tracking down chronically absent students. The cost to the city is about $1.5 million annually.

The city also helps to fund Say Yes, which provides graduates with college scholarships and students and their families social and health services. The city’s contribution this year is $530,000, which accounts for 3 percent of the Say Yes budget’s annual budget of $16.5 million. 

David Rust, CEO of Say Yes, said the city funding is “really important because that allows us to put caseworkers in buildings that can work with families on access to food, clothing, shelter, attendance, interventions, job access.” 

In the past, portions of the Say Yes money was spent on buying 500 tablets for students and to make up for a district shortfall in funding for music programs in 2013.

Support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation

Brown has continued a summer reading program started under Mayor Anthony Masiello. Brown’s Summer Reading Challenge, where students compete for prizes by reading and submitting summaries of books, is sponsored by local businesses and foundations.

In June, Brown introduced an “Earn While You Learn” program that paid 154 high school students $12.50 an hour this summer while they studied to earn their diploma. The cost: $251,482.

Different levels of involvement

Brown has been more hands-off than his two predecessors – for better and worse. 

Anthony Masiello successfully championed a $1 billion program, funded mostly by the state, that paid for major improvements to most city school buildings. He also pressed unsuccessfully for the power to appoint several members to the School Board.

James Griffin was openly critical of city schools at times and ran candidates for the board, sometimes successfully. He was also known for adjusting the city’s contribution to the district depending on what the state gave. For example, if the state increased funding, Griffin would cut the city’s allocation by a similar amount.

Sampson, the former school board president, said Brown was “always very accessible. But he meticulously stayed out of the controversies that were happening at that time.”

Louis Petrucci, the current board president, and Sharon Belton-Cottman, his predecessor, declined to comment for 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 the buildings and athletic fields, and take leadership on helping us with this COVID mask issue. I think there’s some things that the mayor — and whoever the future mayor is — will need to work with us on,” Woods said.

Walton’s platform

During her campaign, Walton has said she wants the city to be more involved in the schools than it has been under Brown.

“It really concerns me, the direction that we’re heading in, in it not having a priority in our municipal government,” she said.

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox
* indicates required

Newsletters *

For starters, Walton wants to increase aid to the school by $20 million incrementally, over four years. The additional money would be funded by increases in the city’s share of sales tax receipts and a redistribution of money budgeted for the police department. The $20 million increase would bring the city’s contribution to $90.8 million.

Walton, who once worked as a school nurse, said she would appoint an education expert as a liaison with the district. Brown’s deputy mayor, Ellen Grant, currently serves as the school liaison, but Walton said she wants more expertise in the position. 

Her platform calls for de-emphasizing policing solutions to problems in schools in favor of providing more social services. Walton said she also would work to improve broadband access for students and their families.

The city and school district co-mingle funds in a common bank account. Since 2018, City Hall has leaned on the district’s funds at the start of each financial year, when the city’s incoming revenue stream slows and its cash flow turns negative. Walton wants to separate those funds so the district’s money can be used only for district purposes.

Woods, who chairs the school board’s finance committee, said of the city: “They have to deal with their finances. All I can say is, we’re managing ours very well.”

Investigative Post

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox * indicates required

Newsletters *