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Board ready to vote on closing 3 schools Decision on whether to close Niagara Middle, 60th Street and 66th Street to come Thursday

The Niagara Falls School Board appears ready to close three schools next year to compensate for the drop in student enrollment over the past five years.

All nine board members Thursday said they were comfortable in supporting a plan to close Niagara Middle School and 60th Street and 66th Street elementary schools at the end of the school year.

The board will vote on that proposal when it meets at 7 p.m. next Thursday in the Niagara Falls High School amphitheater, 4455 Porter Road.

For more than an hour, board members reviewed the consolidation proposal, peppering officials with questions about the plan, presented by School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto.

All nine board members said they are prepared to vote in favor of Granto's recommendation.

The move -- designed to make better use of school buildings with 106 classrooms that are not used for instruction -- would cut the district's annual costs by more than $3.45 million for staff, utilities and maintenance. It would result in the layoff of four administrators, about 38 teachers and 27 non-instructional employees.

The proposal, one of six options the board and school officials have been considering, would result in the following changes, in addition to the closing of the three schools:

*The conversion of Niagara Middle School to an elementary school that would absorb pupils from both 60th Street and 66th Street schools.

*The conversion of 60th Street School to the new Community Education Center, replacing the old 24th Street School, which the district plans to sell.

*The conversion of 66th Street School into an administrative office and maintenance building. Administration buildings at Walnut Avenue and Sixth Street, a Sixth Street warehouse and Elmwood Avenue maintenance building would be sold.

*With the closing of Niagara Middle, all seventh- and eight-graders would be housed at Gaskill and LaSalle middle schools.

*Fifth-graders would remain in current neighborhood elementary schools for another year, with sixth-graders moving to middle school.

Board member Jeanette Stypa said she is willing to embrace the proposal because her questions about the safety of children walking from the 60th Street School neighborhood area to Niagara Middle were addressed by city officials. She said she wanted to ensure that sidewalk conditions, snow removal and the condition of the viaduct beneath the Niagara Thruway would pose no safety problems.

Board member Mark Zito said he wanted to make sure there are enough classrooms in the middle school to accommodate all subject areas, including music and art.

Granto said the middle school would provide more space for all students than both 66th and 60th schools. Zito also was concerned about the honors program, housed in Niagara Middle. School officials assured him there would be an honors program at both the Gaskill and LaSalle facilities.

Board member Kevin Dobbs remarked, "I'm leaning toward [the plan]. I think it's the less disruptive scenario when it comes to moving kids."

Board member Christopher Brown agreed. "It's the best option," he said. "I think the potential positives far outweigh the concerns. I like what I've heard from parents that they really like the idea of keeping their kids in an elementary school for an extra year.

Board member Carmelette Rotella said a decision had to be made. "We just don't have the students," she added. "The Niagara Charter School took a whole elementary school away. I'm not happy we have to cut so many employees. But I like this option best because it keeps all the elementary school children from those schools together."

The board is downsizing because the district lost more than 1,400 students over the last five years.

Currently, there are 7,666 students -- a population expected to drop to 7,412 by September.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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