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Lackawanna school budget slashes special education program

At a special meeting Wednesday evening, the Lackawanna Board of Education approved a $45.3 million budget for 2014-15 that will be balanced with major cuts to the special education program.

The budget was passed, 5-2, with board members Kenneth S. Motyka and David M. Joyce casting the no votes.

The action was taken after a letter was read from School Superintendent Anne G. Spadone, who was out of town.

Spadone requested that the meeting, held before a standing-room crowd in the Superintendent’s Conference Room, be delayed one day until she returns.

“You are contemplating the abolition of positions that are critical to the day-to-day operation ... of this school system,” she warned in the letter.

Board President Leonard F. Kowalski, responding to Spadone’s criticism, cited a $2.8 million deficit that had to be covered in the budget.

“Where’s that money going to come from?” he asked. “Out of the sky?”

He also contended that she had proposed nothing to help reduce it.

“We needed real cost savings,” he said, “and they were never provided.”

The plan comes up for a public hearing at 7 p.m. May 6 in the high school auditorium prior to the budget vote May 20.

It eliminates the assistant director of special education, plus five special education teachers and four teacher aides. Other staff reductions include four high school teachers and three elementary teachers.

Other staff reductions include four high school teachers and three elementary teachers, along with clerical and maintenance posts. A fund transfer also was eliminated.

“That means the pool can’t be fixed,” said Lisa A. Almasi, assistant superintendent of administrative services.

Almasi said the budget is 5.22 percent smaller than 2013-14, and will reduce property taxes by 0.43 percent.

“It appears that you’re going to balance the budget on the backs of disabled kids,” Motyka contended. “You’re putting the district back to the Ben P. case.”

In the Benjamin P. case, a class-action lawsuit in 1989, the district was ordered to provide proper services for special education students.

“The Ben P. case requires us to have enough staff,” Sue Galvin, principal of special education, said during a public comment period. “Cutting the administrator will put us out of compliance.”

“I don’t think we should have a court tell us how to run our schools,” said board member Mark E. Kowalski, who was wearing his Lackawanna police uniform. “We have to challenge it.”

“It’s almost like the perfect storm has hit Lackawanna,” said Mike Popek, president of the Lackawanna Teachers Federation. “There’s the tax cap. New York State has taken money away from us. There’s the charter schools. And there’s the loss of taxes.”

Board members got some good financial news from school attorney Richard S. Juda Jr. during a brief executive session.

Tecumseh Redevelopment, which owns most of the former Bethlehem Steel site, has gotten its property assessments reduced and the school district set aside $600,000 in case tax payments had to be refunded.

When the board resumed its regular meeting, members unanimously approved a settlement with Tecumseh, under which, Juda said, the district will not have to pay a tax refund.