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Barker bids adieu to LaRock Superintendent retires as district battles tax breaks

In 1969, Steven J. LaRock was entering his last semester at Brockport State College and wasn't sure what he would do with his life.

He didn't realize until months later that he would become a high school social studies teacher.

He did not foresee that he would become superintendent of the Barker Central School District 30 years later.

And he never dreamed he would end his career fighting a quasi-government organization like the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency over what he considers an unjust property tax break granted to the profitable AES Somerset power plant, by far the largest taxpayer in the district.

LaRock, 59, retired Saturday after 37 years as an educator, the last seven at the helm of Barker Central.

In a recent interview he recalled how his career started, his pride in the achievements of Barker teachers and students, and the many improvements made to school buildings during his tenure. He spoke of the IDA with distaste.

LaRock said he stumbled into his career as superintendent.

"I was already a couple of weeks into the second semester of my [college] senior year when I suddenly realized what I really wanted to do was go into teaching. So I went down to the registrar's office, dropped two classes and picked up two education courses," LaRock said.

With no student teaching under his belt, LaRock said, "[Brockport officials] told me if you could find a job, the principal could count your first year of teaching as your student teaching requirement. So I got a job teaching social studies at Wilson High School."

He went on to earn degrees in education and school administration.

After six years teaching, LaRock said Wilson Superintendent Richard Zipp selected him as the district's curriculum coordinator, a job that evolved over 25 years to include not only developing and updating curriculum for all grades but also dealing with multiple educational concerns.

"When you're in that kind of position in a small district like Wilson, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. It was outstanding training that came in handy when I became superintendent," he said.

When he came to Barker as superintendent, LaRock said, he and his staff came up with a plan to improve student performance.

"About 47 percent of our kids were getting Regents diplomas, so we immediately set a goal to get that up to 65 percent, which we did. Now it's 95 percent," he said. "Of all the things we've done here, that's what I'm most proud of for the staff. We challenged the staff back then and they really rose to the challenge."

LaRock said the staff bought into his philosophy and made it work.

"They heard me say a million times, 'Kids will rise to your lowest expectations of them. If you raise the bar, kids will respond to that.' "

Over the years, LaRock also was able to obtain millions of dollars for major improvements at Pratt Elementary School and Barker Middle and High schools. That included new electrical, heating and security systems.

He said Barker High School is undergoing a $3.5 million makeover, including the addition of a second floor over the practice gym to contain three large science classrooms.

LaRock said his experience in Barker has been rewarding.

Only one thing has left a bad taste in his mouth: the IDA's grant of a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement to AES, which could cost the district $1.3 million in property tax revenues this coming school year. The deal has led to a bitter dispute in state court and has taken up most of his time this year.

"I don't view AES as the enemy here. It's a huge multinational, worldwide power conglomerate we're dealing with. And these guys at AES get their orders from elsewhere," LaRock said.

He said he objects to the IDA because it was set up to serve the community but appears not to care if it follows its own rules. He accused it of acting "at the expense of taxpayers who live in [the Town of] Somerset and across Niagara County."

"AES has been the best thing that has ever happened to this school district. The problem is the IDA can act as a sovereign, autonomous body that's responsible to no one. It can do whatever it wants," LaRock said.

An IDA, he said, is supposed to help a business but only if the people get something in return, "like more development or more jobs."

"But we're not getting anything here, and I had to cut about 20 jobs because of the PILOT," LaRock said.

Before the plant was built, he said, New York State Electric & Gas promised Barker residents that it would take care of all school district taxes.

So Barker residents supported it when other communities wouldn't. Now the IDA is not honoring that promise, even though AES made more than $190 million on the plant in net profit last year.

"It's ridiculous they're getting a tax break," LaRock said. "It makes you wonder what's going on with the IDA when it approves something that makes no sense and members of the [County] Legislature support it. The IDA seems to be able to act with no accountability.

"They don't even follow the rules the state set for them. To get a PILOT, the rules say a company is supposed to add facilities or create jobs -- creating economic development which will add to the tax base."

LaRock said he is ready to be retired, but he added he will be available if Barker Central needs his assistance in battling the IDA.


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