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Amid some tears, board votes, 8-0, to OK school closings

At an emotionally charged meeting that brought two Board of Education members to tears, the board voted, 8-0, Wednesday night to close a West Side elementary school, phase out Seneca Vocational High School over two years and give a Days Park elementary school a one- or two-year reprieve before closing it.

After hearing more than 15 parents, students and teachers urge them to keep the schools open, board members -- some of whom said they recently fielded more than 100 phones calls -- kept intact a revised plan presented by School Superintendent James A. Williams.

Board member Ralph Hernandez, a key figure in the decision, because two of the schools are in his West District, called the decision "very painful" but necessary because of shrinking enrollment and fiscal problems.

"We're trying to do the best we can with what we've got," Hernandez said. "I think this is a good plan."

It specifies that:

*Seneca Vocational be phased out over the next two years. Students entering grades 11 and 12 in September will be allowed to remain there and graduate from the school, but students entering grade 10 will have to transfer to other schools.

There will be no ninth-grade class. The building at 666 E. Delavan Ave. will house the new math, science and technology school scheduled to open in September.

*School 77, 370 Normal Ave., be closed, and its 500 pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade be transferred to School 38 at 21 Lowell St.

*The earlier proposal to close School 36, an early childhood center at 10 Days Park, be delayed for no more than two years.

*Opportunity Program Centers for troubled students at 220 Fulton St. and 1409 E. Delavan Ave. be closed at the end of the school year.

Those schools will no longer be needed because the district plans to open an alternative high school in September.

The biggest controversy arose when Ferry District board member Betty Jean Grant tried unsuccessfully to allow current ninth-graders at Seneca to remain there until they graduate, rather than transferring to other schools in September.

"I beg of you," she said, "the compromise could keep the [Seneca] family together."

But when it became clear that she did not have five votes to enact the change, Grant asked her two supporters on the board to vote instead for the initial package, then left City Hall in tears before the formal vote.

Grant said outside the board room that she could not vote to force the ninth-graders to change schools but believed that it was important for Williams to have unanimous board backing for his plan.

"I fought a good fight," she said. "I'm hoping that students who have been left out will be successful somewhere else."

North District board member Donald A. Van Every became choked up at several points as he supported the school closings.

He said later that difficult but well-intentioned board efforts are often viewed instead as moves that harm children.

"I hate it," he said, "because there is no joy in doing it."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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