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GRANTO GETS STRENGTH FROM SCHOOLS

Running a small city school district with 1,200 employees, 8,850 students and 13 school buildings in an economically depressed community would seem more than enough of a full-time job for anyone to handle.

Not for School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto, who has held the superintendent's post in Niagara Falls for 13 years.

Granto says he works 12-hour days, on average, but still finds time to sit on public boards and join private organizations:

Granto is the newest member of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

He recently stepped off the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency board of directors to join the NFTA board, but not before working to get Niagara Falls school district attorney Angelo Massaro an IDA board seat.

Massaro and Granto also recently bid on a project to develop a new Niagara Falls public safety complex, because they believed their construction experience with the school district would allow them to save the city money.

The outside work helps strengthen his school district, Granto maintains. It also has made him one of the most powerful and wealthiest citizens in his native city.

You'll get no argument on that score from Mayor Vince V. Anello, who has worked with Granto on a number issues. He described the superintendent as intelligent, influential, effective and "strong in his convictions."

"When I believe in something and I'm passionate about it, I go after it and do what I've got to," the mayor said. Granto, he said, does the same.

Others, too, describe Granto as a visionary, a master politician and a city power broker. Some also consider him a financial magician, a claim bolstered by the fact that he has managed to keep the amount of revenue needed to be raised by city property taxes steady, at $25 million, his entire tenure.

"I have no choice," he said last week. "I think the per capita income here is about $15,800, just a couple thousand dollars above the poverty line. If you raise taxes, you're not going to get any money because the money isn't there. All you're going to do is force people to sell their homes and you don't want that."

Granto has had his fingers in everything and anything he believes will provide the district with money to make his schools better. He has become a force in talks regarding the federal relicensing of the Niagara Power Project and how the local share of casino revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino will be spent. The district stands to gain millions of dollars, largely because of his involvement.

Even in normally combative Niagara Falls, officials are unwilling to criticize Granto in public. Privately, some say he isn't shy to push his arguments by implying that his district's 1,200 employees could be an obstacle to political careers. Whether Granto can muster his employees as a voting bloc or not, it makes people think twice about disagreeing with, or criticizing, him publicly.

"He's the most powerful man in Niagara Falls," said a former school official. That's a good thing, the official said, "unless you happen disagree with him on something."

"From his perspective, there are no public interests in Niagara County that shouldn't be subject to the interests of Niagara Falls School District," said a local official who has watched Granto negotiate. "What impact has the casino had on his district that's worth $700,000 a year? That money's supposed to be for development. But God help the person who stands between Granto and the money."

Granto's involvement also has bolstered his own pocketbook.

He more than doubles his $123,649 district salary by traveling around the country instructing others as a consultant. He said his talks focus on how to use the lease-back financing process the district used to pay for the now 5-year-old high school, and "on subjects like leadership, needs assessment and things like that."

"I make more on the outside in 20 days as a consultant than I do here (as superintendent). I won't say how much I make, but I'll tell you the private sector pays me very well," Granto said. He said he gets 20 days a year where he is not paid by the district to travel in order to do consulting work.

He's hardly apologetic for all the extracurricular work. That wouldn't be his style. And like him, fear him or hate him, it's hard to argue that he hasn't improved efficiency in the Niagara Falls school district.

He has boosted district revenues by at least 20 percent a year for at least the past five years. The district has actively sought grants for 15 years and the amount of money being brought in over that time has increased significantly while Granto has been in charge.

He also has used other methods to bring the district even more funding. Next year, the district expects to pick up $1 million as a result of a settlement deal with the New York Power Authority; $500,000 from the Seneca Niagara Casino; $1 million for the role district staff played in developing a computerized school information warehouse program; and an upfront payment of $2 million for refinancing the bonds sold to finance the construction of Niagara Falls High School at a lower interest rate.

Two new schools -- Niagara Falls High and Niagara Middle schools -- have been built under his leadership and construction will soon start on a third, Niagara Street Elementary. State standardized test scores also have climbed, generally.

Because he knew he could make more money in the private sector but wanted to remain on his mission as superintendent, Granto said he arrived at a contract agreement with the Niagara Falls School Board a decade ago to pay him for 215 days a year instead of 240.

"On those (other) days they let me go (to) hustle my own money and that's what I do, outside the city," Granto said.

But he does not allow that to interfere with his responsibilities as superintendent.

He said he hasn't left the district to work the private sector full-time or take the many of job offers he has received from other school districts because he's committed to the city's schools.

"I'm not done here," he said. "I want to make a difference" and make sure city schools get to a point where kids will have adopted "a culture of learning and that all graduates will be able to go anywhere in the country and make a living because they obtained their skills from our school system. . .

"I believe the one chance this town has is through education."

Granto says he's joined community organizations and boards to build trust, which eventually translates into support for the school district. Anything that makes the city economy better, helps the school district, too, he reasons, and he believes he can make a difference when it comes to both.

Granto said he joined the NFTA because the public authority owns the Niagara Falls International Airport, which he says has been highly underused. "The airport "has to be used for something," he said. "It could create new economic viability for the area. I want to promote it because if it . . . is used properly, it will help bring in development and expand the tax base. When the tax base goes up, so do our school revenues."

As for his three years on the IDA, "I (joined) because sometimes they would exempt (a new business) from taxes, and that included school taxes. That cost us money and we weren't even consulted about it. So I wanted to make sure public school districts had a voice on it."

With his school board attorney as his IDA replacement, "(Massaro will) make sure all the county's public school districts are represented," Granto said.

He said he has not had to recuse himself from a vote on either the NFTA or the IDA because no votes ever affected him personally. He said he would not hesitate to vote against something that hurt the school district, or in favor of something that was a benefit.

Granto said he moves from group to group, networking for the district. "I try not to do too much or stay on one board too long because I don't want that to interfere with school operations. That's my focus. If I get on a board, it's school-related."

He has belonged to a multitude of other organizations, including the Niagara County Community College board of trustees, the Niagara Falls Boys Club, and as chairman of the United Way of Niagara.

He has served on the Niagara Falls Planning Board, and now sits on the Mount St. Mary's Hospital board of trustees.

Newfane Schools Superintendent James N. Mills, last year's president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said it's unusual for a school superintendent to be so active with various boards. But he appreciates Granto's efforts on the IDA because it helps all school districts.

"It's unusual to the extent that most superintendents don't have the opportunity because of the small size of their districts," he said. He said Granto can push himself to do what he does because he belongs to a city school district and has a deputy superintendent.

That deputy is Granto's sister, Cynthia Bianco, who handles academics while Granto focuses on district finances.

Mills said many small district superintendents have a difficult time getting their basic work done.

Granto said he also has had success by surrounding himself with competent people to run academic programs and to help deal with finances. He praised two district grant writers, Maria Battaglia and Andrea Triosi, who brought in $28 million in grant money in the 2003-04 school year and expect to gather up to $22 million this school year.

Granto also praised his sister. He said he can't afford to hire people who can't perform, and that while he has a couple relatives on the district payroll, they got there because they are good at what they do.

He said his sister was promoted into administration by former Superintendent Robert Utter. "I had nothing to do with it." He said his sister was one of the district's three top supervisors left when he was placed in charge, and he kept her as deputy because she wanted to remain in the district offices while the other two wanted to be relocated in the schools.

When he became superintendent, Granto said he decided to cut down on administration and focus more on the schools solving problems and making decisions, so he asked each supervisor where they wanted to go. "Two wanted to go back to the school buildings and Cynthia wanted to stay downtown. So I made her deputy since that was the only position available to her."

If his sister didn't do her job, "I'd fire her," Granto said flatly. He said he doesn't penalize people if they are related to someone who works in the district or on the School Board.

He said they get a courtesy interview, but have to convince him they know their business and are good at it. Then, "if they are hired, we are really strict for three years, and don't keep people who aren't working out," he said, adding that he has had to fire the relative of a School Board member in just such a case.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com