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Lockport schools enter new era
Voters helpless in face of closings, program and staff cuts, tax hike

LOCKPORT -- Two school closings, extracurricular program cuts, a 40-position reduction and a nearly 12 percent tax levy increase. Superintendent Terry Ann Carbone's money-saving plan is unpopular with city school district residents -- but the School Board isn't going to change it.

And if voters think they can force changes, they'd better think again.

"We've been in lockstep with [Carbone] all the way -- it's not like anything she said [March 10] was a surprise to us," board member Edward P. Sandell told The Buffalo News, referring to the meeting earlier this month in which Carbone announced planned cuts to an audience of several hundred residents.

"As far as I'm concerned, the superintendent's recommendation is the board's recommendation," Sandell said.

Carbone's proposal includes shuttering DeWitt Clinton Elementary, turning the John E. Pound Elementary building into a universal pre-kindergarten site, cutting 40 positions and ending various programs for the summer and after school.

Although Carbone developed the spending plan, the ultimate authority of budget approval belongs to the School Board. Its members will adopt their 2010-11 budget April 14.

Though district officials have blamed the economy for the massive cuts, the closings were inevitable, board member David M. Nemi said. The board already had planned to close two schools -- they just didn't expect to do it so quickly.

"Over the summer, we talked about closing schools," Nemi said. "We wanted to do it on our own time. We didn't want close two at one time and have layoffs. But the state forced our hand."

Lockport was hit with a proposed $3.9 million cut in promised state aid. Another $4 million in inflationary costs leaves the district with a $7.9 million budget hole. The budget -- along with its unpopular school closings and tax levy increase -- will go to voters May 18, but they have less input than they may think.

If they vote the budget down, the result would be more cuts or a higher tax levy.

"The public thinks if they vote down the budget, we can't close schools, and that's not true," board Vice President John A. Linderman said at a meeting earlier this month. "They really only have a say in a small piece of the budget."

When the public rejects a school budget, the district is forced to go to a contingency plan based on the consumer price index. This year, the CPI is zero, and the district would be forced to scale back to a zero percent spending increase.

"Last year, our budget was $77 million," Sandell said. "We are presenting a $77.4 million budget this year. If the public votes no, we have to find a way to make up $400,000. That would be through cuts, a tax levy increase or a combination."

The board's fears of the budget being rejected were affirmed March 10, when hundreds came to hear Carbone's announcement, and many spoke angrily in protest of the plan.
The word "devastating" was used by several speakers. One woman threatened to move out of the city. Many others demanded more information.

When Carbone announced the 11.9 percent tax levy increase, the audience groaned loudly in unison, prompting Carbone's response: "I know. That's unacceptable. I agree."

The nearly 12 percent jump in the tax amount collected by the district would translate to roughly $200 more in school taxes for the owner of a $75,000 home in the district. Final home assessments and tax rates won't be determined until summer.

But as harsh as the plan may seem, it could have been worse. The district needs to gear up for next year, when there will likely be more cuts, barring unforeseen help.

"We know next year we need to have something left to cut," Nemi said. "The federal stimulus money will be gone. We don't want to cut anything more this year."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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