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Falls school budget expands Aid hike benefits existing programs

Hit with the rare and pleasant experience of getting more state aid than anticipated, the Niagara Falls School Board on Thursday amended its adopted 2007-08 budget upwards from $117.3 million to $121.2 million.

It was the first time in years that the school district was faced with having enough money to maintain student programs instead of being forced to find ways of cutting back, especially on personnel.

The vote came after district Business Administrator James J. Ingrasci explained that while Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer had proposed placing close to an additional $6 million in state aid in next year's budget when the board adopted its spending package on March 22, the State Legislature chipped in an additional $3 million when it finally approved the state budget.

While the budget increase comes to about $4 million, Ingrasci explained, $1 million of the increase was money the district was already receiving in past years through special funds that were not part of the general budget.

He said Spitzer decided that the $600,000 allocated to support the district's magnet school program and the $453,000 grant used to reduce class sizes were to be part of the general budget next year. They were considered separate funds this year and in past years.

"So even though it appears we're getting $8.9 million more in state aid next year, we're really getting about $7.8 million more because we were already getting the magnet school and class size reduction money," Ingrasci said. "The difference is we had to roll over that $1 million into the general fund budget."

When considering the aid for magnet schools and reduced class size, he said, the current district budget would really be $112.5 million instead of $111.4 million if the magnet school and class size reduction money is figured in to make a fair comparison with next year's amended $121.2 million spending package.

He said $1.79 million of the extra state aid the Legislature added to the budget was set aside to help the district finance the Niagara Charter School, which will use up $2.9 million of the district's budget next year.

With $2.9 million already budgeted for the charter school in the adopted budget, Deputy School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco said the extra money has yet to be allocated for anything and is being kept in a contingency fund until the board can review district needs and decide what it should do with it. She said the board has until June 30 to decide how the money should be spent.

Board member Russell Petrozzi said, "I just want to go on record that this board member doesn't want to spend it."

Ingrasci cautioned: "Remember, we're only allowed to save 2 percent of our budget at the end of the year. Technically you either give it back [to the state] or lower taxes."

Board member Mark Zito said the board might "want to reduce class sizes because we were going to increase them when we adopted the budget. We could reduce them back to where they were before. . . . We could use them to pay down some of the district's debt."

Petrozzi said, "I just don't want everyone to see this money, go home and get out their wish list. It's ridiculous that we have to spend $9 million more than we did last year."

Zito wondered what the state would say next year, "if we gave it back to the taxpayers. Would they say the Niagara Falls School District doesn't need the money?"

Petrozzi agreed the district has a lot of debt to pay off.

Board President Robert Kazeangin Jr. called off discussion and moved to amend the budget, which the board did by a 7-0 vote.

The amended budget will be presented to residents for their approval or disapproval at the annual budget vote and School Board elections May 15.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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