As expected, the Niagara Falls School Board unanimously approved a consolidation plan Thursday that will close three city schools at the end of this school year because of declining enrollment.
"We had no choice," said board member Mark Zito. "We had to restructure and close schools because of falling enrollment and because of the [Niagara] Charter School, which will take $18 million in state aid from our district over the next five years. On top of many other problems we face, we lost 250 students to the charter school. And the state aid that we would have received to pay for the education of those students and to support the district goes to the charter school."
He said that has caused "significant financial repercussions" that have forced the board to change the way the district delivers services.
School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto said, "We've done quite a balancing act for the past 15 years in hopes things would get better [with the local economy] . . . The charter school -- I don't blame them. People have the right to go where they want -- was the tipping point on top of everything else. It was the straw that broke the camel's back."
After reviewing several options during the past five months, the board voted to:
*Close 66th Street Elementary School, which opened in 1955, and convert it into the new central office and maintenance building.
*Close 60th Street Elementary School, which opened in 1962, and convert it into the district's Community Education Center.
*Close Niagara Middle School, the former Madonna High School, which the district renovated and opened in 1995 for sixth- through eighth-grade pupils. The school will be converted into a large elementary school that will take pupils from the two closed elementary schools starting in September.
Under the plan, all seven elementary schools would add sixth-grade pupils to their buildings next year.
Seventh- and eighth-graders who would have attended Niagara Middle will instead go to either Gaskill or LaSalle middle schools, whichever is closer to their homes.
The district also will attempt to sell five nonschool buildings: two ad
ministrative offices at Walnut Avenue and Sixth Street; the district warehouse on Sixth Street; the maintenance building on Elmwood Avenue; and the Community Education Center in the old 24th Street School.
In the end, declining enrollment forced the district's hand, Granto said.
The district has lost 1,400 students during the past five years and currently reports enrollment at 7,666, Granto said.
Public schools in the city had 19,182 students in 1962, its peak enrollment year.
Back then, the city school district touted 23 elementary schools, four junior highs and three high schools.
Next school year, the district will have seven elementary schools, two junior high schools and one high school.
The city population was more than 100,000 during the district's peak enrollment years and has since fallen to half that.
Several people were concerned and saddened about the closings, questioning whether they were necessary.
Linda Cessna of Girard Avenue said her husband and children went to 60th Street School and her three grandchildren go there now. She told the board her 4-year-old granddaughter understands something's wrong.
"She asks me, 'What school am I going to next year?' and I tell her I don't know. She asks me, 'What's wrong with my school?' and I tell her there's nothing wrong [with it]," a tearful Cessna said.
"Sixtieth Street School is a wonderful school," she said and then questioned whether her grandchildren would be safe walking to Niagara Middle School by areas of high brush with no sidewalks and walking under a viaduct in an area where the city seems to forget to plow snow.
"Can you imagine a 5-year-old going under that [Thruway] overpass. Anybody could abduct them. Nobody will be there to watch them . . . I want my grandchildren to feel safe when they go to school. You promised that. I just want to make sure they're safe. That's all I care about."
Board members said those issues are being addressed with the city.
Isabella Fagiani, a seventh-grade honors pupil from Niagara Middle, told the board she was upset because the move would break up the honors program and she was not sure whether there would be a full program next year or whether she would ever be able to graduate from eighth grade with some of the friends she has made over the past two years because "we come from all over the city."
Many people, including school staff, wanted to make sure planning is being done so students continue to get a good education next year.
While they don't like closing the schools, many parents and teachers seemed resigned to the change, understanding that falling enrollment and rising costs made it necessary.
Board members said they regretted the vote but said it was necessary.
Fewer students have meant wasted space and inefficiency, Granto said. He said the district has 106 classroom that no longer are used for instruction because of the shrinking student population. He repeated his belief that the district should not be spending money on bricks and mortar when it needs more to help students learn.
Closing buildings is expected to cut district expenses by $3.4 million next year on utilities, maintenance and staff. That estimate includes cuts that will come from savings because of the elimination of four administrative, 38 teaching and 27 non-instruction positions for the 2007-08 school year.
The district had expected to contend with a $7.4 million revenue shortfall next year, which will be reduced to a $3.8 million shortfall because of the school consolidation plan and other job cuts.
Taking other things into consideration, that revenue gap should be reduced to $2.8 million, which will still require the district to make even more cuts to balance expenses and revenues in its 2007-08 budget, said district Business Manager James J. Ingrasci.
Board members said the closing plan they chose was the best of several options.
Board member Carmelette Rotella said the district would lose more teachers and other staff if the consolidation didn't take place, "so I have to regretfully vote 'yes.' "
Zito said the board could raise property taxes to keep things going but added city residents don't have the money to pay them.
Many pupils don't like losing their schools.
"It's one of the most horrible decisions the Board of Education has ever made. That's what I think. This is a really great school," said Meaghan N. Oswald, 10, a fifth-grader at 60th Street School in school that day.
"We've got great teachers and parents who help us. We have cool activities . . . I'd rather stay here." She also said she didn't like the idea because she's not sure she will ever see the teachers and staff she's grown to know in the last six years.
However, Anthony J. Mittiga of 66th Street School said he didn't mind going to Niagara Middle because "it has a swimming pool and we'll have our own lockers."