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The Niagara Falls School District is expecting to close a $3.1 million budget gap that last week prompted school officials to consider laying off 56 district employees, including 35 teachers, by Thanksgiving.

Assistant Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco Thursday informed the School Board that state lawmakers this week agreed to restore $800,000 in aid to the district that had been trimmed in Gov. George E. Pataki's budget proposal.

The restored funds mean the district will receive about $4 million in state aid to small-city school districts, the same level of funding it received last year through the program, according to Roy Rogers, school district administrator.

"This will help close that $3.1 million gap," Rogers said. "But while $800,000 is a lot of money, it still leaves us $2.3 million short."

School officials also are hoping for the deferment of a $1.2 million loan from the state that was used to pay the district's share of services at the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services

Rogers said that would still leave the district with a gap of about $1 million between its revenues and expenses, though the district does have another $500,000 in contingency funds to help close the gap further.

How this would affect the proposed layoffs was unclear Thursday.

Meanwhile, Niagara Falls High School administrators informed the board of their plans to raise academic standards at the high school.

Chief Building Administrator Philip Mohr said a higher number of students this past school year took at least one of the 14 Regents exams the district offers.

"In terms of special education, we've improved in the number of students taking nine of those Regents exams. That's a good indicator of where we're going. And secondly, out of those 14 exams that are listed, we've improved in the passing percentages in nine of those exams," Mohr said.

However, Mohr cautioned that there is vast room for improvement in the student scores for math and science. Under current state guidelines, a student needs a grade of only 55 to pass the 11th-grade English Regents exam. However, the standard for a passing grade will be raised to 65 by 2004, Mohr said.

In June, 75 percent of the district's students passed the exam with a grade of 65 or better. By 2005, when the current freshman class at the high school graduates, Mohr said the district plans to have 92 percent of those taking the exam pass with a grade of 65 or better.

Robert M. DiFrancesco, principal of the Health, Sports Management and Recreation Tower at the high school, said today's ninth-graders face the toughest graduation standards in the state's history.

"In addition to the local 24 units they're going to have to master, they also have to pass those five Regents examinations with a grade of 65 or better for a regular high school Regents diploma," DiFrancesco said.

He and other administrators at the high school said more collaboration between teachers at the high school and those in the lower grades is required so that when middle school pupils enter the ninth grade, they are prepared to do the work at a more proficient level.


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