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Schools fire 7 for not living in Falls Strict policy likely to face legal challenge

With some family members in tears, seven employees were fired Thursday by the Niagara Falls School Board for violating a strict residency policy, which the employees vowed to take to the courts.

"You have caused these families stress, tension, financial duress, mental anguish and fear all because you feel you can," Melanie Krajkowski told the board moments before her husband, Randy, was fired from his network administrator job. "I hope no one ever does to you what you have done to these families."

The district says evidence provided by private investigators showed the employees do not live in the city.

But some of the fired say they maintained dual residencies, which they maintain is not specifically prohibited in the district's policy.

The written policy defines residency as "an individual's actual principal domicile at which he or she maintains usual personal and household effects."

The board had sought to terminate 10 employees, but received last-minute evidence from three. An 11th employee, elementary school Principal Harriet Fogan, opted to retire rather than face termination.

Other residency investigations are continuing, the district has said. Another 17 teachers are under review, said Joseph Catalano, head of the Falls teachers union.

Tears streamed down Keli Koran Luchey's face as her termination was approved. She lost her job as a Niagara Falls High School counselor after 10 years in the district.

"Ms. Luchey did not receive due process," Rachel M. Kranitz, an attorney, told the board. "She has not had an opportunity to rebut the allegations or be apprised of the evidence against her."

New York State United Teachers, the powerful Albany-based union, has indicated it likely will assist in legal action because the board did not go through hearings it says are required to fire tenured teachers.

The district has declined to comment on possible legal action but defends its policy as a way to stabilize the struggling city's tax base and to give children positive role models in their neighborhoods.

Russell Petrozzi, board president, said Thursday's comments have not persuaded the board to reconsider its residency policy. All employees, he said, are aware of and expected to adhere to the residence policy when hired.

Catalano said the policy limits the qualified candidate pool and does not contribute to providing students a quality education.

"How can nine elected officials demand of its employees, 'If you want a job in the district and keep it for your entire career, you must live in the city or else?' " he said. "It sounds like George Orwell's '1984. "

The policy, adopted in 1994, requires that employees at all levels live within the district. The policy is unique in its strictness. The residency policy in Buffalo Public Schools applies only to tenure-track teachers and administrators.

Members of the Buffalo School Board have been toying with eliminating the policy, adopted in 2002, to ensure a bigger pool of skilled candidates, but the idea has not gained traction. Buffalo's policy, unlike that of Niagara Falls, allows exemptions for those with "unique qualifications."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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