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RESIDENTS RALLY TO PROTECT CLASSROOM PROGRAMS

Williamsville taxpayers to the School Board: Take scissors to the budget, but not music and art programs, please.

As a January public forum on the 1998-99 budget approaches, residents are forming protest groups and signing petitions to stop the district from eliminating classroom programs, including instrumental music for fourth graders and art classes for seventh and eighth graders.

The cuts, part of a $731,339 package of program cutbacks suggested to the School Board by Superintendent Ann B. Fuqua last week, also include second language classes for fifth graders, elementary summer school, and the "special friends" program for elementary school students who have trouble adjusting to school.

"We would prefer to have cuts that don't have as direct an effect on the students," said resident Richard LeFauve. "There's got to be other line items that don't have 'sacred cow' or 'hands off' written on them."

LeFauve, who earlier this year chaired Williamsville's high-profile "Save Our Sports" committee to rescue sports funding from the district's budget shears, this week organized a group of taxpayers into SMART, the Save Music and Art Committee.

So far, the group has started a letter-writing campaign and distributed hundreds of petitions to residents. LeFauve said the group is planning to descend en masse on the School Board's January forum.

"I think this is being pro-active," LeFauve said. "We're going to get as many people as possible to participate at the meeting. We can at least send a message to the School Board to still keep a sharp pencil, but rethink that music and art cut."

Ms. Fuqua said this week that, given the School Board's guideline of a maximum 1.57 percent budget-to-budget increase, cuts in classroom programming will be necessary in the planned $103 million package.

"We knew last year, when we had the budget problems, that this would be a year of challenges," Ms. Fuqua said. "Something will have to go. If not these, then other areas of the programming. We want to see the reaction to what we have suggested."

Meanwhile, some residents, such as Marianna Sontag, head of the East Amherst Taxpayers Association, are suggesting budget cuts that they claim would be less harmful to students.

"It's shame, shame on the district and shame, shame on the superintendent," Ms. Sontag said. "The last thing that should ever be cut is anything that touches our children . . . How can they justify that? We have administrators' salaries that should be looked at first."

Ms. Sontag said that in some ways the district is in a salary bind, having a contract with the teachers' union that runs until 1999. But, she said, the level of staffing -- including curriculum coordinators, middle school guidance counselors and social workers -- should be put under a magnifying glass.

The district is also proposing $797,025 in staffing cuts that would mean the reduction of 13.4 full-time teacher positions in the middle schools and 4.6 positions at the high schools.

The public budget forum is set for 7 to 9:30 p.m. Jan. 28 in South High School.

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