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680 layoffs feared from Paterson cuts<br> Proposed reductions in state aid for city schools total $16 million

The Buffalo Public Schools will be forced to lay off 680 staff members -- or nearly 10 percent of its work force -- if Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed state aid cuts are enacted, School Superintendent James A. Williams said Wednesday evening.

Williams did not specify which jobs would be cut, but hundreds of classroom teachers would certainly lose their jobs in a work force reduction of that magnitude. That, in turn, would lead to program cuts and larger class sizes.

"We are looking at every department where there will be some adjustments made -- every department," Williams told the Board of Education. The district has about 7,000 employees.

Williams made his comments after a series of speakers urged the board to raise the pay of bus aides and cafeteria workers -- some of them making as little as $8.43 an hour -- to a "living wage" standard.

Williams said he agrees with that goal, which the board approved in principle last year, but said the first priority should be to save jobs in a fiscal crisis.

"My plea to you is: How can we stabilize and maintain jobs?" Williams said. "The numbers are the numbers. Our first responsibility must be for the children of the City of Buffalo. If we don't have any children, none of us will have jobs."

Buffalo, which is accustomed to large yearly hikes in state aid, is slated instead for a $16 million cut next school year. Combined with rising costs, that results in a $34.2 million budget deficit.

With the state's own deficit now projected at more than $9 billion, there are growing signs that the State Legislature will not restore substantial amounts of school aid.

"We are in an unprecedented time here with the budget," said Christopher L. Jacobs, an at-large board member. "This is a perfect storm of perfect storms. When New York gets a cough, we get the flu."

Jacobs said that he favors hiking the pay of bus aides and cafeteria worker when possible but that the board should avoid boosting pay for one group "and laying off people on the other end."

"What I'm asking for is for you to work with us as partners," he told the living-wage advocates.

John Licata, also an at-large board member, said Williams' projection makes it "much more critical" to lobby both the city and federal government for additional funds.

"We need to stabilize what we've got," Licata said. "We need money."

The city school system relies on the state for about 80 percent of its funding, the largest percentage in the state.

Six speakers urged the board to live up to the commitment it made last year and pay its bus aides and cafeteria workers a living wage by the 2011-12 school year.

The goal is $11.57 an hour, while bus aides now make between $8.43 and $10.60 an hour, said Betty Martin, president of the bus aides' union.

Living-wage advocates acknowledged the district's budget crisis but said boosting pay would help build a more stable work force, reduce turnover and is the right thing to do.

"Investing in people pays a social dividend," said Megan Connelly, a director of the Partnership for the Public Good. "We're asking you to bridge the gap between theory and practice."

At the urging of North District board member Catherine Nugent Panepinto, the board directed Williams to specify how much it would cost to raise the pay for bus aides and cafeteria workers to $10.96 an hour.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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