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Faced with 859 staff layoffs, the likelihood of a state control board and a round of criticism last week from the state education commissioner, School Superintendent Marion Canedo enjoyed a welcome laugh this week with a City Hall worker.

"All you need now is the plague, and you'll make it into the Bible instead of the newspaper," the employee told her.

Canedo didn't get the plague, but she is about to receive a contract extension.

The Board of Education is negotiating with Canedo to add as many as three years to her current agreement, which expires in July 2004, board President Jack Coyle announced Wednesday.

"She can handle anything, and I mean anything with a capital "A,' " Coyle said at a news conference before a board meeting. "She's always on top of things. She keeps children first. She's a very effective communicator. We're hopeful we'll reach an agreement sometime soon."

The challenges facing Canedo were underlined later at the meeting, when the board approved sending layoff notices to 859 staff members -- including 485 teachers -- to help close a huge budget gap.

Canedo's three years as superintendent have been marked by a teachers strike, three consecutive budget crises that have prompted the loss of about 1,000 teaching positions, and a crippling snowstorm that stranded thousands of students in schools, buses and community centers.

Last week, State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills criticized Buffalo for low test scores in fourth-grade and eighth-grade English. District officials claim that the criticism was unfair, and that additional data shows Buffalo students are outperforming children in other big cities in the state.

But the problems and challenges are mounting:

* A state control board is expected to oversee board finances.

* Absent some dramatic new development, the board faces another fiscal crisis next year that could dwarf the previous three.

* Contracts with all nine district employee unions expire next year, and new pacts must be negotiated separately with each one.

* All nine Board of Education seats are on the ballot next year, meaning there could be heavy turnover on the board that plans to rehire Canedo.

"Those are all reasons why maybe I should go, but instead I see them as reasons why I should stay and be part of the solution," Canedo said. "I told the board I'm very appreciative of the confidence they have in me. That's very nice to hear at such a very tough time."

The board had already been negotiating with Canedo behind closed doors, but decided to make its intentions public in order to project an image of leadership and stability when the deck seems stacked against the school district.

"We are 1,000 percent behind Superintendent Canedo and her staff," said Paul G. Buchanan, an at-large board member and the previous board president. "We believe her leadership and her team will be able to guide the school system through these troubled times."

Canedo, 59, has worked for the Buffalo schools for 35 years. She was named interim superintendent in January 2000, after James Harris accepted a buyout following a stormy and controversial term. Canedo, who makes $155,000 a year, became superintendent in March 2000 following a unanimous board vote.

The decision to extend her contract eliminates the need to conduct a national search, which generally takes a year or longer.

"We don't think there's anyone in the country better than Marion Canedo," Buchanan said. "We know what we have."

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the board is taking the right approach.

"She's done a great job," he said. "It's the right move."

Layoff notices will be sent to 859 employees todaythursday, though some of them may be rescinded later because of retirements or additional district revenue that is not yet certain, Canedo said.


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