The state of Buffalo: a city with a weak economy, a shrinking population, a declining tax pool, an outmoded industrial base and an educational system on the edge of calamity.
Facing a $28-million budget gap, the Buffalo Board of Education voted Wednesday night to lay off 557 employees, 433 of which are teachers. This drastic action passed due to anticipation that Albany will deny aid necessary to cover the gap. Additional state aid is usually given annually to Buffalo, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 will leave the city on its own. The damage to Lower Manhattan and the state's financial difficulties eliminate any possibility of receiving additional funds.
The Pataki administration's focus on the crisis in Lower Manhattan is certainly justifiable. It was utterly impossible for anyone to predict the disaster, and the exceptional nature of the situation mandates the state give it much attention. Pataki, however, is governor of the entire state, not simply Lower Manhattan. By virtue of his election, the governor and his administration need to focus on the welfare of the state as a whole, not only its most dramatic crisis.
There's a hole in Lower Manhattan that desperately needs to be filled, but there is also a hole in Buffalo's educational system. Educational issues cannot take a back seat. State aid is necessary for Buffalo's schools to remain vital. Recently, the state raised Regents standards for high school graduation. This new demand puts pressure on schools across the state, and especially on impoverished, low-performing systems like Buffalo. Denying funds to meet even basic needs such as teacher salaries hinders any hope of raising student performances. Throwing money at the problem isn't the magic solution. But, if it's suppressed, there is no hope the problem can be solved.
While the state does share a large measure of responsibility, the blame does not rest solely on its shoulders. The city of Buffalo shares equal culpability in creating the current situation. Buffalo based their educational plans on money that was never guaranteed. While they could not have foreseen the events of Sept. 11, they need to anticipate scenarios that can drain state surpluses. Terrorist attacks are a unique matter, but a season of heavy snowstorms, for example, can quickly drain public funds with emergency aid. Buffalo city schools cannot base their financial integrity on conditional funds.
Instead, the schools need to reorganize their priorities when planning for the upcoming year. The budget needs to focus on the local funds that are already available. Core academics, teacher and staff pay, and school maintenance - all should be budgeted first with guaranteed funds. This way the board of education doesn't have to hand out pink slips to hundreds of teachers in the middle of a school year.
The layoffs ensure adversity for an entire school year. Students without teachers now must be separated from their classmates and folded into larger groups. Large class sizes impair learning. To help fill gaps in classrooms, some remaining teachers will be bounced from class to class, and school to school. Children learn better when teachers are around long enough to form relationships with their students, something this year's classes will likely not be able to develop.
If these conditions continue, their negative effects on Buffalo shall extend beyond this academic year. Trapping students in a failing, unproductive academic environment drastically reduces the city's chance of revitalization. Families that can leave will, denying the city much needed tax revenue. Those who remain stay because they cannot afford to get out, shackling already disadvantaged children into a failing system. Families looking to move will not choose Buffalo because of its poor educational system. This leads to the erosion of intellectual capital, the lifeblood of any vibrant community. Without this valuable knowledge, the city's prosperity suffers and it gains a lasting, odious reputation.
That's why Buffalo's proposed casino cannot help the city, and will only make conditions worse. Legislation passed both houses of the New York State Assembly Thursday allowing the Seneca nation to open a casino in Buffalo. The casino's defenders view it as a linchpin for the city's economic rebirth, but they are only seeing dollar signs when they talk about an avalanche of gambling revenue that could very likely never even begin to slide into state coffers.
What state lawmakers can't see are the social costs of casino gambling. Instead of raising its standard of living, Buffalo will be descended upon by the grunge and grime associated with casinos. These unsavory elements, such as violent crime, prostitution and compulsive gambling, will degrade the city's already lackluster quality of life.
If they aren't scared away by the decaying educational system, families, the crux of Buffalo's tax base, will further abandon the city. And without a healthy stream of property revenue, its schools will receive even less money, spiraling the problems further downward.
In the end, Buffalo will raise a generation of young people in schools that are unable to educate them, in a city with a poorly-developed economy that is unable to offer much of a future. Theirs is a future that cannot be risked on what ifs - what if the state will have the money this year, what if casino gambling will succeed? The future of Buffalo should not rest on the whim of chance.