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Niagara Falls schools chief hopes to narrow budget gap

NIAGARA FALLS – City school officials are bracing for potential job cuts of between 45 and nearly 70 employees under next year’s budget to help close an anticipated budget gap of between $5.9 million and $7.3 million.

Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco told the School Board on Thursday that the numbers on the higher end of those ranges would be under a “disaster scenario,” one she said the district has managed to avoid having to implement in recent years despite fiscal pressure.

Bianco presented four scenarios to board members for a spending plan totaling $136.2 million for the 2015-16 school year, situations that differ based on how much state aid the district receives.

None of the scenarios include a proposed tax levy increase. Each of them would use up the district’s remaining $2.1 million in savings.

Bianco, who plans to present her recommended budget on March 26, said the state’s refusal to release school aid figures has made a difficult process even harder.

She also said the district has reached a “conceptual agreement” with the teachers’ union for a four-year deal that includes no pay increase next year, but provide a 5.3 percent pay hike over the last three years of the deal.

Each budget scenario calls for cutting about 26 nonteaching positions, while cuts to instructional positions range from 20 to 43.The personnel cuts do not necessarily indicate the number of people who will lose their jobs, as the number of total retirements and the specific individuals who are retiring are yet unknown.

Bianco’s proposed budget cuts include $300,000 in special-education classes for district students at the Orleans Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Those students would be brought back and receive services within the district, under the plan.

The budget scenarios also consider the elimination of the district’s summer camp, which would save $145,000. The district would also cut $400,000 in computer purchases from BOCES, as well as the entire modified sports program, which would save $50,000. An additional $100,000 also would be taken out of a workers’ compensation reserve fund. Even without the tax levy increasing, the district would still technically be exceeding the state’s tax cap, so 60 percent of voters must approve the spending plan, said Joe Giarrizzo, the district’s top finance official. But if a budget with this spending level failed, the district would still not be able to raise any more revenue through taxes under a second budget proposal.

“We’d be in the same place except we’d be operating under a contingent budget instead of a regular budget,” Giarrizzo said

District administration is expecting an increase in state aid of 6.3 percent.

The $136 million in total expenditures represents a $10 million increase over the current school year.

Of that figure, $5 million is payments for the district’s “Inventing Tomorrow” capital improvement plan. Those expenses will be offset by an additional $5 million in state funding.

The spending increase also is caused by a $2.5 million increase in health insurance costs for retirees.

The budget gap is larger than last year’s $5.3 million, as some School Board members predicted would happen.

During budget deliberations last year, Bianco presented scenarios that would have cut between 14 and 33 positions. In the end, one teaching position was cut through attrition, along with 2.5 support staff posts under the approved budget.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com