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Niagara Wheatfield board takes talk of cuts behind closed doors

The Niagara Wheatfield School Board again went behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss the details of possible personnel cuts for next year, but all figures are speculative until a final state budget is released later this week.

School Board President William C. Conrad said he could not project how much of the nearly 18 percent reduction in state aid would be reinstated when a final budget pact is decided in Albany. Business executive Kerin M. Dumphrey said that it would be premature to guess how much of the $4.5 million cut by the governor would be returned by the State Legislature.

Board members and administrators have been grappling all month with how to handle the aid reduction and have met in executive session to discuss personnel issues or details of which jobs would be cut for 2011-12.

In a statement, Conrad defended the board's decision to deliberate in private. He said that the issues were "complex and sensitive" and that the board needed to show "respect to those [staff members] losing jobs." Acknowledging that it was difficult to separate all the issues "to adhere to the Open Meetings Law," he said the board was working in an unchartered area. Despite any criticisms, Conrad said, he was proud of the board's professionalism in the matter, and the community can be assured that board members are dedicated to the district.

He was supported by one speaker, Gina M. Terbot, the mother of an Errick Road Elementary School girl, who said the board made the right decision to hold the budget discussions in private. Terbot, who said she served on the Tonawanda City School Board from 1998 to 2001, noted that a public discussion of who may or may not lose their jobs only causes anxiety among the staff.

The board met for about 30 minutes in public to hear about program cuts before going behind closed doors. No board action was to be taken after the executive session, School Superintendent Carl H. Militello said.

About $3.7 million in cuts have already been implemented, according to Militello. Those items include a hiring freeze, eliminating academic intervention tutoring, stopping equipment purchases, cutting summer school in half, reducing training allotments, eliminating early and late bus runs, and not replacing teachers on special assignment.

Militello showed a list of about 20 other items totaling $966,809 that are on the chopping block. Included are the elimination of some middle and high school department chairmanships, a counselor on the school bus, counseling during the summer, library materials, district summer school, professional development, staff conferences, early morning transportation, all field trips, piano-tuning, some elementary school computer software, various clubs throughout the schools, and running a modified sports program.

A notable item is the elimination of the "Twilight" program, an alternative-education project that has been an academic success for some high school students. The program, which began last year, allows some students who had previous failures and attendance problems to attend class during later hours. The program has been praised by district officials. If eliminated, there would be a savings of about $180,000.

Last year, the district was able to draw on reserve funds to prevent a property tax increase, but the amount of aid that was lost was only $1.4 million, according to the district. Almost $69 million is expected to be spent this year. If no further cuts were implemented, property taxes would have to jump by at least 9 percent, according to previous discussions.

Militello noted that the board would be looking Friday for any restored aid that could provide more options before a tentative budget is approved April 13.

e-mail: niagarnews@buffnews.com

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