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Picture students who have spent weeks bonding with classmates being split up or getting new teachers three months into the school year.

Picture troubled kids, already struggling academically, thrust into a class with more than 30 other students, while there's less staff -- or none at all -- to provide extra help outside the classroom.

Picture teachers bouncing to other classrooms and schools to fill in for hundreds of other laid-off educators.

That's what city schools are facing come Dec. 1, after the Buffalo Board of Education voted Wednesday to eliminate the jobs of 433 teachers and 124 other employees to help close the district's $28 million budget gap.

Transportation won't be affected, school officials said. Interscholastic sports will remain intact. Physical education classes, art and music won't be touched because of a contract agreement with the teachers union, said Andrew Maddigan, a spokesman for city schools.

Other than that, details won't become clear until the coming days and weeks as district officials try to determine exactly where the layoffs will come.

The direct impact will vary greatly from school to school, said Superintendent Marion Canedo.

"Everything goes by seniority," Canedo said, "so in some schools, it could be so devasting that 50 percent of the staff will turn over," while schools with a veteran staff will see little change.

One thing is certain: Schools citywide will be touched in substantial ways as the effect of the cuts ripples through the district, administrators said.

"It's going to be very difficult. Without teachers, you don't have a school system," Ben Randle, principal of Grover Cleveland High School, said Thursday. "And when class sizes start getting up to 34, 35 or more, it's very difficult in a 41-minute period to answer every kid's question."

Not only are educators worried about academics suffering, they're concerned about the toll cuts will have on the emotional support system for students in city schools. The 433 teachers include not only classroom instructors, but also librarians, guidance counselors, attendance teachers, psychologists and social workers.

The task of figuring out who gets laid off and how the shuffling of personnel takes place is extremely complex and guided by contract provisions and specific guidelines issued by the Board of Education on Wednesday. School administrators spent Thursday in meetings clarifying responsibilities and approaches.

In the meantime, anger, frustration and -- above all -- unanswered questions rippled throughout the district's 80 classroom buildings.

Jon Lyon, principal of Emerson Vocational High School, had no answers for his teachers Thursday. He wondered, too, how the cuts would affect the school's career and technology programs, including Emerson Commons, a Chippewa Street restaurant operated by his school's culinary arts students.

Ed Gibson, who returned as a Buffalo teacher this year after leaving to pursue another career a few years ago, figures he's at the bottom of the pack in seniority.

"I'm concerned for my own position, but for the students as well," said Gibson, a Regents math teacher at Emerson.

If math and English teachers are cut, it could make it extremely difficult for many of his students to meet the state's Regents graduation requirements.

"If they don't pass the Regents exam, they don't receive diplomas," Gibson said. "We've taken such big steps forward, and now it's going to start falling apart."

The cuts will do irreparable harm to the students, said Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

"A year of sitting in a classroom with 33 or 30 students and not having the extra reading or math programs is damage that is not going to be undone," Rumore said. "It's not like you can say, 'OK, next year we'll make it up to you.' "

Rather than arguing right now about who will be laid off, the union's main focus is lobbying state and federal officials to get additional funds so there won't be any cuts, Rumore said.

During a hastily called rally in the lobby of City Hall at 4 p.m. Thursday, close to 100 parents, teachers and children were urged to pressure elected officials to provide additional funds. It appears Buffalo will get some new money from Albany, but not enough to prevent layoffs.

People should demand, not ask for, the additional aid, he said.

"Right now the teachers are angry because they feel the state and federal government are letting our kids down," Rumore said. "How much of a bailout did the airlines get? How long has it been without a state budget? They're passing casino gambling rather than focusing on kids with the most need."

Canedo said Wednesday's decision was "probably the worst day" since she took the job and "a tragedy of gigantic proportions."

School Board member Rev. Darius Pridgen said of Gov. George E. Pataki, who was in town Tuesday to announce plans for casinos: "Don't play games with our children. . . . They're not a roulette game."

As many as 300 classrooms could end up with new teachers, according to at-large member Donald A. Van Every, chairman of the board's finance committee.

Temporary teachers filling in for teachers on leave would be laid off first, followed by nontenured probationary teachers, then tenured teachers with the least seniority.

It will also mean widespread "bumping" in which teachers who are not laid off move from school to school to fill vacancies.

"All of us are just going to reach down and do the best we can," Rumore said. "But it's almost like it's an impossible task."

News Staff Reporter Tom Ernst contributed to this report.

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