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24 Barker school jobs hang in balance District plans layoffs unless there is relief from AES tax break

Twenty-four teachers, teacher's aides and teacher's assistants have been told they will lose their jobs unless the Barker Central School District wins relief from a tax break granted to Niagara County's largest property taxpayer, the AES Corp. power plant in Somerset.

AES, meanwhile, sent a letter to the state comptroller's office Wednesday requesting an audit of the district for what it contended was an "extraordinary increase [in revenues], . . . with no apparent increase in instruction services and no real gain in student performance."

"I have no problem with an audit," School Superintendent Steven J. LaRock said. "In fact, every school district in the state is having that done, anyway. I have nothing to hide."

He said he started holding personal meetings Monday with those whose jobs are on the line: 15 teachers and nine aides and assistants.

"These are not pink slips. I am not laying people off at this time," LaRock said. Any cuts would take effect in the next school year, he said.

Robert Gilsinan, president of the 114-member Barker Teachers Union, called the threatened job cuts "abominable."

"I think with this many cuts it will practically eviscerate the school," he said.

The cuts account for 14 percent of the district's teachers. About nine teaching assistants are in the union; teacher's aides are non-union.

AES Somerset President Kevin R. Pierce said of LaRock, "I hope he's not just playing politics, trying to keep things stirred up by playing games with people's lives."

"Boy, has he got a lot of nerve. That's so dumb it's comical, coming from Kevin Pierce," LaRock shot back.

Pierce's letter to the comptroller's office, citing tables on the state Education Department's Web site, said Barker's per-pupil spending rose by an inflation-adjusted 28.7 percent between 2001 and 2005 "with no apparent reason or benefit," while enrollment fell 7.2 percent.

LaRock contended that AES has a history of misquoting state education data but that the numbers cited in the AES letter were present on the Web site.

The school district has sued AES and the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency over the tax break; that case is due to be heard in court Feb. 22. Gilsinan said he is trying to get a union, New York State United Teachers, to join the suit.

Also, State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls, are sponsoring bills that would send Barker additional state aid to make up for AES' payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal, or PILOT.

Maziarz said he thought LaRock's disclosure was "premature." He said, "I expect the state budget will be passed by April 1. . . . I'm trying to get [the aid bill] passed as soon as possible. Generally, these things are part of budget negotiations. Budget negotiations started [Wednesday]."

But LaRock said he felt it necessary to inform the employees that their jobs are in jeopardy and that it might be a good idea to start job-hunting.

"A lot can happen. We have to see what happens with the lawsuit. We have to see what happens with the special legislation Sen. Maziarz and Assemblywoman DelMonte have on state aid," LaRock said.

"We're looking at other things, as well, with the board. Right now, I have to go on the premise that we're going to lose $1.35 million in tax revenues."

That is the best available first-year estimate of the loss to Barker schools as a result of the 12-year PILOT the IDA gave the coal-fired power plant on Lake Road. AES paid $10.7 million in school taxes for the current academic year, which was 78.4 percent of the district's total property tax levy.

The expected PILOT payment by AES to the school for the 2007-08 academic year is just under $9.37 million. The figure may change somewhat as a result of a complex formula included in the PILOT agreement AES and the IDA signed Jan. 12.

IDA Chairman Henry M. Sloma did not return a call seeking comment on the threatened layoffs.

LaRock said some of the teachers he has talked to about losing their jobs have cried.

"This is the worst part of my job," LaRock said. "I have to tell them, 'I may not have a job for you and I can't offer you one good logical reason why your service to our kids has to stop.' Nothing of economic value is happening as a result of the PILOT. That's been my beef with the IDA from the start."

The possible layoffs include five teachers in the elementary school, one in the middle school, two who work districtwide, and seven in special programs.

LaRock said that the elementary school gifted-and-talented program would be abolished and that teacher would be transferred to a regular elementary classroom as a result of seniority and union "bumping rights." The same move would be made by a technology teacher and a middle school English teacher.

"They all hold tenure and have seniority in other areas," LaRock said.

Union leader Gilsinan said, "Mr. LaRock and I are continually having conversations on how to save positions through attrition. . . . Our main concern is to save those people's jobs."

Gilsinan said the job cuts will complicate talks on a new teachers' contract. The union's deal ends June 30, and negotiations were to begin today.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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