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School aid increases 'unprecedented' Buffalo, suburban districts in line for $61.9 million

Seeking "unprecedented" increases in school aid, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer on Wednesday proposed a state aid increase of $40.2 million -- or 9 percent -- for Buffalo schools and $21.7 million more for suburban Erie County schools.

The governor also proposed $12 million more for Niagara County schools, with the largest chunk, $4.9 million, going to Niagara Falls.

In return for the increase in operating aid, Spitzer's spending plan requires school districts with the largest aid increases to develop "contracts for excellence" demonstrating that the money will be used for smaller class sizes, more instructional time, teacher training, school restructuring or other measures aimed at better results.

"After this unprecedented infusion of resources, the focus of education debate in New York will rightfully shift to accountability and performance in the schools," Spitzer said.

"There will now be no excuse for failure," said State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills, who will draw up specifics of the contracts. "A lot is at stake here. We are going to make it work."

Buffalo would be required to file such a contract and, in all likelihood, so would several other school districts in Erie and Niagara counties.

Gary M. Crosby, Buffalo's chief operations and financial officer, said he is "feeling very good" about the nearly double-digit aid hike. But he cautioned that from $20 million to $30 million of the new money will be needed to pay additional health care premiums if the district cannot reach an agreement with the Buffalo Teachers Federation on a single carrier.

"It would go into the pockets of insurance companies and not into the classroom," Crosby said. "That's the sad part of this story."

Spitzer's budget would increase school aid statewide by $1.4 billion -- or 7.9 percent -- next school year, with the governor saying that the largest aid hikes would go to the neediest districts.

The governor's office announced higher totals -- an $81.1 million total increase for Erie County and $17.3 million for Niagara County, for example -- but those figures include one-time reimbursements for things like major construction projects and do not reflect regular school operations.

Locally, the Cleveland Hill School District seems to be in line for the largest percentage increase, at 22 percent, which works out to $1.5 million.

Cleveland Hill Superintendent Bruce E. Inglis greeted the news with "cautious optimism," hailing Spitzer's desire to boost school funding but stressing the need to verify the accuracy of the numbers. If the dollars materialize, he said, the district would use them to enhance staffing and technology for academic intervention services and for advanced courses.

The neighboring Cheektowaga-Sloan and Cheektowaga Central school districts would receive the next-biggest increases, at 11 and 10 percent, respectively -- dramatically higher numbers than former Gov. George E. Pataki's school aid proposals for the past several years.

"We usually came out flat or in the 1, 2 or 3 percent range at best," said Dennis Kane, Cheektowaga's assistant superintendent. "You're looking at 10 percent here. Ten percent I've never seen, and I've been here 10 years."

The largest proposed aid increase in Niagara County is at Niagara-Wheatfield, with a 9 percent increase, or $1.6 million. Superintendent Judith H. Howard attributed it to her district's steady growth in enrollment. Any extra money, she said, would be used to hire more teachers to keep pace with the growth.

The Niagara Falls City School District would receive an 8 percent increase in state aid, a hike of $4.9 million.

"It means we have a much better outlook on the future than we did two weeks ago because it gives us a balanced budget for next year. That means the [School] Board has some choices," School Superintendent Carmen Granto said.

Spitzer promised to develop methods to assess the effectiveness of school superintendents and principals, minimum standards for granting teacher tenure and report cards on individual students that chart assessment test results over several years.

Spitzer would give the mayors of the state's Big Five cities -- including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown -- authority to appoint representatives to the boards of education.

Sure to be controversial is Spitzer's call for $25 million in tax deductions for parents who pay tuition for their children to attend parochial and private schools. Such tax breaks have been unsuccessfully proposed previously but could gain momentum this year because Spitzer is a Democrat, the party that traditionally takes a dim view of tax credits.

Spitzer proposed $15.2 million in transitional aid to Buffalo, Lackawanna and three other districts with large concentrations of charter schools.

Paul Westmoore of the News Niagara Bureau contributed to this report.

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