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DESPERATE TIMES FOR CITY SCHOOLS

Dead though they are, the degenerates who embedded two airplanes into the World Trade Center last month are taking aim at New York once again. And once again they have thousands of victims trained in their sights -- the students of every large, urban school district in the state.

This time, though, there is time to act. Albany and Washington need to work together to ensure that public education doesn't crumble in New York.

The Sept. 11 attacks collapsed not just the soaring towers of lower Manhattan, but two important pillars of the state's economy. Tax revenue to the state has plummeted as economic activity in New York City's financial district goes on life support. Meanwhile, residents across the state have reined in their spending. Suddenly, Albany lacks the money that big city school districts rely upon.

In Buffalo, that reality has come crashing down. Facing a $28 million shortfall, the city school district announced plans this week to eliminate 557 jobs, 433 of them belonging to teachers. Students will be juggled into larger classes, routines will be changed, schedules disrupted. Most troubling, instead of meeting the state's higher academic standards, struggling students in a poor school district will fall further behind. "There is a horrible domino effect," said Superintendent Marion Canedo.

Each of the other "Big 5" districts is also in trouble, especially Yonkers, which is planning more than 1,300 layoffs, and New York City, which is facing a shortfall of more than $300 million. These are educational calamities and they are a direct result of what was an attack not simply on New York, but on the United States. Washington needs to act.

First, though, the state needs to demonstrate that it has done all it can to address this problem. In the midst of a crisis, Albany needs to be clear about its priorities, and public education should be at, or very near, the top. All reasonable efforts should be made to protect it, and Albany can start by scrapping its $300 million system of "member items," and devoting much of it to education.

But even that kind of painful review is unlikely to fully spare education, given that the state is forecasting a $9 billion revenue hole over the next 18 months. That is where Washington must step in, filling as much of the remaining gap as it can, here and in any state where public school students are clear victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. President Bush, whose campaign focused on election, should lead that fight.

Unfortunately, neither the president nor Congress has acknowledged this obligation. So far, Washington is either distracted or just not interested in helping.

That is intolerable, especially in New York, which was savaged by the attacks and which routinely sends more tax money to Washington than it ever gets back. This is a comparatively wealthy state, and under normal circumstances, we've been able to deal with that disparity, as unfair as it might be. But circumstances today are anything but normal, and New York has a right to expect that, in a time of crisis, its record of generosity will be repaid.

The Buffalo school district, which relies on the state for 73 percent of its funding -- far more than any other big city district -- cannot expect to escape unscathed from the reverberating reality of terrorism. Everyone is going to suffer.

But neither can it be asked to absorb so much of the cost of terrorism. This should be clear: Nothing less than the long-term prospects of Western New York will be at risk if Buffalo schools are allowed to become a sacrifice to the murderers who took down the World Trade Center.

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