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Falls School Board rejects residents' petition for downsizing

Residents of Niagara Falls will not get a chance to vote this year on reducing the city School Board from nine members to five.

The board voted Tuesday to reject a downsizing petition signed by 561 residents and delivered to the board clerk Monday by Johnny Destino.

Destino, who serves on the current nine-member board, asked that a proposition to reduce the board to five members be placed on the May 17 ballot for the School Board election and 2011-12 budget referendum.

The deadline for filing petitions for candidates for election to the School Board is 5 p.m. today, and Destino said he felt the same deadline should apply to a petition to downsize the board.

School Board attorney Angelo Massaro advised board members, however, that the filing deadline for such petitions was April 2 and that Destino's petition was delivered too late to be placed on this year's school election ballot.

Destino said he felt that board members had the discretion to accept the petition if they wished to do so. Massaro said it was not a discretionary matter, and the petition must be rejected because it was not "timely filed."

Board members voted, 7-1, to instruct clerk Ruthel D. Dumas not to officially file the petition, although Destino delivered it to her at about 2 p.m. Monday in her office.

Destino was the only board member present who voted against rejection of the petition. Board member Kevin Dobbs was absent from the meeting.

Destino said voters would have plenty of time to decide on their votes on the downsizing proposal if it were placed on the May 17 ballot.

Destino's proposal to reduce the size of the board has been public knowledge since March 13, when he announced that he was circulating a petition asking for a referendum on downsizing. At least 500 valid signatures are required to get such a proposition on the ballot. Destino said he filed 561 in order to provide a margin for error in case any of the signatures was found to be invalid.

He said downsizing would save money, streamline the election process and make the board more responsive to the wishes of the voters.

"The current membership level was established by referendum in 1951, when the population of the City of Niagara Falls was over 90,000 and growing," he said. The city's current population is about 51,000.

All nine board members serve without pay, but Destino said that "travel costs for board members to attend conferences routinely exceed $20,000."

"Fewer board members won't diminish our level of representation," he said, "but it will immediately diminish the overhead costs of those remaining."

Board President Russell J. Petrozzi said Destino's effort to downsize was "a travesty."

"It would remove diversity from the board," he said. "It is an attempt by a board member to take over control so a select few will run the School Board. I am very disappointed and upset by it."

Petrozzi said the nine members represent a cross-section of the city's diverse population.

Each board member serves a five-year term. Under downsizing, the terms would be staggered so that one board member would be elected each year.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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