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Ax to fall on 10 Falls school employees Board will vote tonight to fire them because they live outside the district

For a group of teachers, counselors and clerical workers in Niagara Falls, today is their last day with a job. Tonight, the Niagara Falls School Board will vote to fire them because of where they live.

District officials say evidence from private investigators shows the 10 employees live outside the city, violating an unusually strict residency policy rarely seen across the state. The employees have vowed legal action.

Buffalo is the only other nearby district with a residency requirement, and the policy has been divisive and controversial, despite being far less restrictive than that in Niagara Falls. Statewide, only a few districts are known to enforce such policies.

Critics say the rule limits the pool of skilled candidates and upholds a system of nepotism -- a majority on Niagara Falls' nine-member School Board has had family working in the district.

But the district defends its policy as a way to stabilize the struggling city's tax base and to give children positive role models in their neighborhoods.

Most of the Falls employees to be axed tonight have already hired attorneys and called upon New York United Teachers, a powerful Albany-based lobby group, for help.

"This is going to be one long, drawn-out process," said Joseph Catalano, president of the Niagara Falls teachers union. "And it's going to cost the district a lot of money."

The state has upheld the
right for districts to enforce such a limitation, but Catalano and NYSUT say that residency is not clearly defined in the written policy and that the investigated employees have been denied their legal due process.

"The teachers had 48 hours from the time the private investigator's report was released and disciplinary charges were lodged," said Carl Korn, NYSUT spokesman. "It's our opinion the district is acting as judge, jury and executioner."

Niagara Falls school attorney Angelo Massaro declined to discuss specifics of the case but said the policy was lawful and the district is properly upholding its policy.

"We have afforded them due process according to the law and the consideration to give them all the opportunity to respond," Massaro said. "That is my only comment until the matter is voted on by the board."

The Niagara Falls policy is one of the strictest in the state. Buffalo's only applies to tenure-track teachers and administrators, while the Falls policy applies to all employees -- from maintenance and clerical workers to teachers and administrators.

Russell Petrozzi, president of the School Board, said the policy keeps a class of well-educated workers in Niagara Falls who patronize local business and pay taxes, a needed draw for a city with a steadily shrinking population.

"No teacher working for the district has ever been made to move into the city," Petrozzi said. "When you accept the job, you accept the terms."

Members of the Buffalo School Board have been toying with eliminating their policy, adopted in 2002, to ensure a bigger pool of skilled candidates, but debates haven't gained traction. Unlike in Niagara Falls, those with "unique qualifications" can be exempt in Buffalo's written policy.

It's an uncommon practice to force school employees to live within district boundaries. Although no state organizations formally keep statistics on it, representatives from the state Education Department and the State School Boards Association described the policy as rare.

NYSUT is undergoing an exhaustive review of union contracts, but based on current research, the spokesman said, "We are not aware of any district in the state with a policy as restrictive as Niagara Falls."

Officials in Niagara Falls say it hasn't led to a shortage of job candidates -- many positions have waiting lists of applicants, said Superintendent Cynthia Bianco. But its top business administrator position was left vacant for more than a year when three applicants offered the job refused to live in the city.

Last month, a financial officer from Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo was appointed to that post. He will have six months to move to the city and if he has trouble finding a residence, he may be granted a six-month extension under written policy.
e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com1

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