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The right course; Pay freeze may be the best option for workers in Niagara Falls schools

Letters sent last week to union leaders of Niagara Falls School District workers asked if they would consider accepting a pay freeze. Under the difficult circumstances facing virtually all of the state's school districts, unions should agree to consider this short-term measure with the potential for long-term results. It will save jobs and serve students.

After all, it is all about the kids. Right?

Just as in Wisconsin, public employees have been under extreme pressure to make concessions as this country struggles out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. And as that process takes hold, budgetary shortfalls make it necessary to cut into the bone of important services.

Education is critical, but as one of the two main cost centers for the state, it is also in the bull's-eye. Salary and benefit costs continue to weigh heavily on districts. In Niagara Falls, School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco broke the bad news to members of the School Board that she had placed a freeze on all non-essential expenditures as of March 1. She and her administration are hunkering down for worst-case scenarios.

A "disaster plan" would confront a $9 million shortfall and eliminate 130 jobs, including roughly 68 members of the Niagara Falls teachers union. The best-case scenario, producing a deficit of $4 million, would eliminate 43 jobs, including 14 employees represented by the teachers union. Bianco expects the final budget to fall somewhere between the two, meaning a budget gap of about $7.5 million with the elimination of 101 jobs.

These are dismal numbers for a school district not exactly flush with cash and resources. No services would be eliminated, but the $2.5 million reserve fund would evaporate.

There's always the chance that the State Legislature could add roughly $1.5 million to the governor's planned state aid for the coming school year, but this is not an ordinary year.

The state is facing a $10 billion budget gap and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has already proposed $1.5 billion in statewide education cuts.

Meanwhile, unions representing most of the district employees have already accepted new contracts providing for pay raises over the next five years and amounting to roughly 8.3 percent of their base salaries, including raises of 1 percent for this school year and 1.9 percent next year.

Still, the school superintendent is right. It's worth asking union leaders whether their members would be willing to forgo raises. Not only can they do the right thing for students and their own members, but they can set an example that may help protect students and teachers in other districts around the region.

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