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Upgrade sought for Falls schools ; Officials explain $130 million plan

The city School Board wants to spend $130 million -- most of it borrowed through a bond issue -- to "upgrade all classrooms to 21st century learning environments," and officials insist that it will not increase the local school property-tax levy by even one single cent.

Residents will be asked to vote on the bond issue from noon to 9 p.m. Feb. 15 in their regular general-election polling places. Approval will require a 60 percent favorable vote, not just a simple majority.

School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco presented a broad general outline of the plans to School Board members at a work session Thursday evening. She said specific details of the work to be done at each school would be available after the referendum.

"Experts tell us that employers will be looking for technical skills, content knowledge, collaborative tendencies and critical-thinking capacity," Bianco said. "We have to face the reality that 'sit-and-get' classrooms and learning are not filling that bill.

"What we have are classrooms. What we need are learning environments.

"This project will provide both excellence and equity for our children."

Learning environments are flexible spaces that allow for self-directed inquiry, small group work, scientific experimentation, optimal use of technology and physical representations of mathematical concepts, the school administration said in a prepared statement.

School Board President Russell Petrozzi added, "Students would also have spaces where they can conference together or talk one-on-one with the teacher. This concept came from teachers, and it better reflects the needs of today's students."

Tim Hyland, administrator for school business services, said state reimbursement would pay for 98 percent of the cost. "But we have $6.2 million in 'EXCEL funds,' which are a different pool of money that we can use for our local 2 percent share.

"We will leverage the 'EXCEL' to free up $130 million. It doesn't come from local dollars. The money is there. We use it or lose it."

There was no discussion of where the state would get the money for its 98 percent share of the project, but state income usually consists of income taxes, sales taxes, franchise fees, user fees, special taxes on items such as tobacco and gasoline, and other sources. Through those levies, taxpayers from throughout the state would be contributing to the cost of paying off the bonds.

If the rules should be changed so the state would not pay its 98 percent share of the cost, Bianco said, other funding would be sought or the project would be scrapped -- but in no case would it be added to the local real-estate tax levy.

School administrators plan to hold a series of meetings with block clubs, community leaders and other groups to explain their plans. Public forums also will be held in the next few weeks, but the schedule has yet to be worked out.

"We want the community to engage in a public discourse on this project," she said.

Officials said the $130 million project was the largest ever proposed by the Niagara Falls School District.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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