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42 lose jobs in Falls schools 36 teachers cut as board OKs budget

Forty-two members of the Niagara Falls School District staff saw their jobs disappear Thursday night as the School Board adopted a $111.4 million budget for 2006-07.

Thirty-six teachers -- mostly full-time substitute teachers and a handful of regular full-time teachers -- and six non-instructional staff members' jobs were eliminated. The cuts stemmed from a $2.7 million shortfall in the amount needed to duplicate current programs next year.

The budget is $4.2 million -- or 3.9 percent -- higher than this year's $107.2 million spending package. It carries no property tax levy increase for the 14th straight year, leaving the amount of money property owners have to pay for school programs unchanged at just over $26 million.

The board approved the spending package in a 7-0 vote and will present it to city voters for approval in the May 16 budget referendum and School Board election.

Board member Mark Zito was absent because of a persistent back problem and Kevin Dobbs missed the session because his wife was having surgery.

Rising costs in many areas more than ate up next year's expected $3.5 million increase in state aid. They include hikes of $1.6 million for salaries, $970,000 for health insurance, $750,000 in contributions to the state Teacher Retirement System, $700,000 for utility and gasoline costs, $120,000 in contributions to Social Security and $1.1 million for students who participate in Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services programs.

In addition to the extra state aid, the budget taps the fund balance and money from the settlement with the State Power Authority to provide the extra $4.2 million.

Board members said they hated the idea of layoffs, but admitted they had no other option with rising costs coupled with declining enrollment.

School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto said the district lost another 300 students this year, leaving enrollment at about 8,160. He said the district had 17,384 students in 1970 and remained over the 9,000 mark through 2001.

David Brooks, a media specialist and researcher for the district, presented a report that showed the district's student population is falling fast and could decline to 4,813 by 2020.

Niagara Falls Teachers President Joseph Catalano was not happy, but he was not upset with the board or district administration.

"If we don't have the students in the classrooms, there's nothing much we can do about it. I hate that we are going to lose some people, but what can you do? We lost 300 kids in a year. I am thrilled that our state legislators are getting us $3.5 million in additional aid next year. If it wasn't for them, we'd have lost more than double that number of teachers."

Board Vice President Robert Kazeangin Jr. said, "I'm satisfied with the budget, but I'm also very concerned at having to eliminate staff. That bothers me, especially when we are having to use at least $1.2 million to help pay for the new [Niagara] Charter School. The total amount will depend on how many students the charter school draws from our district."

He said that money could have been used to bolster city school programs and employ some of the staff members who are being laid off.

"I am very proud we've kept the tax levy the same for 14 years," he said of the budget. "I think that's amazing."

Board Member Carmelette Rotella said she was outraged that a poor district like Niagara Falls will have to raise average class sizes by one pupil in the elementary grades to two pupils at the secondary level in a city with very low average incomes and where children really need help.

"That's just wrong," she said.

In his presentation, Brooks told the board about 50 percent of the people in Niagara Falls fall below the poverty level in every age group.

Granto said the average city resident's annual income has only risen by $1,000 since 1993. In 2000, Niagara Falls had a 10.3 percent unemployment rate compared to 6.6 percent countywide and 4.8 percent nationwide. He said he doesn't believe that has improved.

"The per capita income here is $13,700, and I don't think that's gotten any better," he added. "The median household income was at $26,800 in 2000, and I don't think that's improved either."

With rapidly declining enrollment, Granto said the board has a lot of serious planning to do in the next couple of years. He said it is going to have to close buildings and operate more efficiently.

He said schools will be closed or possibly reconfigured. He said the administration will have to be consolidated at one location, so the district can get rid of four more of its buildings.

Granto told the board that even if the district got more money, "I would still recommend to you the cuts that are still in the budget. The reason: There're no students."


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