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West Seneca school officials are gearing up to ask voters to approve the first budget in two years with a tax increase.

Superintendent Richard Sagar says that it is too soon to determine the size of the tax increase, but that it would be "educationally unreasonable" to expect the district to produce a budget for the 2001-02 year that doesn't raise taxes.

The first draft of the coming school year's budget -- to be officially unveiled at the School Board's meeting Monday -- increases spending by about 5.5 percent, to about $77.7 million, Sagar said.

He said the extra spending is to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes in elementary schools, to provide more remediation in the upper grades and to cope with a $1 million increase in special-education costs.

West Seneca's utility bills are also increasing by $536,000, Sagar said -- about double the normal increase, mostly because of the soaring cost of natural gas.

The district won't determine the size of the tax levy and the new tax rate until it knows better how much aid to expect from Albany.

Sagar said he is unsure how the community, which is mostly blue-collar, will respond to a tax increase. The district has increased taxes only twice in the past five years, thanks in part to a large surplus it could tap to help pay the bills.

Still, critics say this is a particularly bad year to ask for more taxes.

Michael Dulkiewicz, a parent and School Board critic, said the community might feel less than supportive in the wake of the controversy involving Sagar and the board's ouster of him.

Sagar has until June 30 find a new job. Fighting to clear his reputation, he is threatening to file suit. That, combined with the slowing economy, might doom a tax increase, Dulkiewicz said.

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