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Buffalo schools to Gov. Cuomo: 'Stop playing the game' with two-week closures

Screenshot by Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash repeated criticism of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of statewide school closures during a virtual board of education meeting Wednesday night.

Cash said Gov. Cuomo’s repeated two-week extensions of school closings are preventing districts from engaging in long-term financial and academic planning.

“One of the reasons why I get concerned and have mentioned it before, with this two-week-at-a-time notification from these executive orders, is it doesn’t really ever let us go into full planning mode for the remainder of the year and into next,” Cash said.

On Monday, Gov. Cuomo extended the closure of all schools and nonessential businesses from April 15 to April 29. Buffalo and other Erie County schools had been officially scheduled to reopen on April 20, but Cash said last week he didn’t expect students to be able to return this year given the fierce trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cash also said Buffalo Public Schools is now facing a nearly $90 million budget deficit for next year, which needs to get balanced by June 1.

“As you can imagine, we’re working night and day to try to figure out how to approach this,” Cash said. “Now, if we knew we weren’t coming back for sure… we could probably save about $30 million for the remainder of the year.”

While expressing varied concerns about continuing to support students while schools are closed, several board members signaled their agreement with Cash Wednesday. Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman even wrapped up the meeting with a direct message to Gov. Cuomo.

“Stop playing the game and just admit that we are in trouble for the next 60 plus days,” she said.

The state budget passed in Albany last week kept funding for public education fairly flat, which New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Robert Schneider described as “probably about the best school districts could have hoped for” while the state grapples with a potential $15 billion budget deficit and fights the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. Still, the prospect of mid-year budget cuts will force many school districts to make difficult decisions in the coming months, according to NYSSBA.

Cash also discussed the district’s plan to distribute school laptops to all students in third through eighth grades starting next Tuesday.

As WBFO reported earlier this week, parents will receive a letter instructing them on the specific date, time and location of their assigned pickup. Cash said he believed the pickup sites will be at students’ regular schools and that students will get the same laptop they’ve been working on this year. He also said the district’s “highest-needs” students will be getting their devices first.

“That’s not a perfect science, but we’ve tried to be sensitive to it so that the children who need it most don’t get it last,” Cash said. “Sometimes that happens.”

The district’s younger students will also receive three to four weeks of new paper learning materials along with their laptops, Cash said. The pick up process will take place over the course of six days.

As of Monday, a district official said there were no current plans to do another mass delivery of supplies like the one that took place on March 19.

Regarding New York State’s cancelation of June Regents exams, Cash said the district is still working on a thoughtful grading procedure for the rest of the year. The third grading period, which was scheduled to end Thursday, has also been extended to April 30 in order to relieve pressure on both teachers and students.

Cash also urged parents and students who may be experiencing any issues at home to contact the district’s helpline at (716) 816-7100.

“I think that if you have trouble, if you’re having an issue, let’s work to be part of the solution rather than, you know, lamenting and complaining,” he said. “I’m a problem solver. [If] you’ve got something that I can help with and I know about it, I’m gonna solve it. I’m gonna solve it.”

No community speakers were accommodated during the virtual meeting, which was livestreamed on Lifesize and YouTube. However, board president Belton-Cottman said she's open to suggestions about how to do so moving forward.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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