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SCHOOL BOARD'S EARLY ADOPTION OF NEW BUDGET CAUSES SOME DISSENSION

While school boards in many neighboring districts are just beginning to examine their budgets, the Lockport Board of Education has adopted a proposed $60.3 million spending plan for 2001-2002 that it will present to voters May 15.

Two dissenting members of the nine-member School Board insist the Feb. 5 vote was rushed through, and on Tuesday one of them plans to introduce a resolution calling for rescinding the vote.

Trustee David E. Blackley called the board's action irregular because he said it is usual practice for district administrators to present tentative budgets to the board in February and refine them over several weeks for adoption in April.

"What's the hurry?" Blackley asked during a news conference last week with Trustee Renee A. Knight.

Blackley and Knight said they had no knowledge prior to the special meeting that Superintendent Christine A. Neal's entire budget proposal would be on the agenda. Instead, they expected the only agenda item would be a vote on Neal's proposed budget cuts and plans for the conversion of Charlotte Cross Elementary School into an early childhood center. After the budget vote, they protested that neither had even seen details of the rest of Neal's budget plan.

Raymond E. Morningstar, the district's clerk and business manager, agreed Friday that the early budget adoption was unusual, but so were the circumstances surrounding the conversion of Charlotte Cross, he said.

Also, planning for the 2001-2002 budget started in August instead of October because of the complexities involved in converting Charlotte Cross and implementing full-day kindergarten, he added. Morning-star acknowledged that board members did not see a line-item budget in advance of adopting the budget, but he said that is not all that unusual.

"What they have seen is a tremendous amount of data pertaining to the implementation of full-day kindergarten and the changing of facilities at Charlotte Cross," said Morningstar. "This was information that comprised virtually all the major changes in the budget."

Blackley, however, insisted that the Charlotte Cross conversion and implementation of full-day kindergarten represent a very small portion of the district's proposed overall spending.

Morningstar said state Education Department law has no restrictions on how early a school board can adopt a budget and does not require a completed budget document be submitted to the board before April 23.

"The board has never received a public document of the budget until after the budget was adopted," he said.

Stephen London, business manager for the Starpoint Central School District, said its board is scheduled to adopt a budget on April 2, before which its members would have access to the entire document.

"This way they're not blindly authorizing a budget," said London.

The Niagara Falls School Board began its budget review process Feb. 8. The process will continue through mid-April, and the board will adopt a spending plan on April 19, said Assistant Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco.

"By then, (the board will) have seen the whole budget," she said.

The Niagara Falls School Board, like Lockport and Starpoint, must adopt a spending plan at least 24 days before the May 15 budget referendum. However, Bianco noted the school district's budget process is usually frustrated by the fact the state legislature in recent years has failed to adopt its own budget on time, forestalling vital information on how much aid school districts will receive.

"That's why we don't adopt a budget in January," said Bianco.

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