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In Niagara Falls, uncertainly about job losses will complicate budget vote

NIAGARA FALLS – When a school district says it may slash almost four dozen jobs in its next budget, a loud public outcry almost always follows.

But in Niagara Falls, where 45 positions appear to be on the chopping block, only the head of the teachers’ union spoke during the School Board’s public hearing on the budget.

And instead of hollering for school officials to save jobs, he joined with the district’s administration in tossing blame towards the state for what they perceive to be funding shortfalls.

Considering the job cuts that have been made recently to balance budgets – including 177 jobs lost over two years – and the threat of job cuts that don’t always come to fruition, it’s hard for anyone to predict what’s coming down the pike.

The 2011-12 budget cut 101 positions. Officials followed that up with a proposal to cut 76 more jobs – 13 full-time and 63 part-time positions ­– for the 2012-13 spending plan.

But the following year, initial budget projections ranged from 6 to 35 job cuts. In the end, only three jobs were lost.

Last year, the district initially looked at cutting between 14 and 33 positions, including 10 to 15 teachers. But when the dust settled, only 3.5 positions had been cut, including one teaching job eliminated through attrition.

Falls school officials are presenting a $133.6 million spending plan to voters on Tuesday.

It’s not just jobs on the line in the new budget – some computer purchases, 10 percent of supplies and materials, the district’s summer camp and modified sports are all among planned cuts.

Of the 45 positions slated to be cut this year, 20 are teachers and 19 are teaching associates; the others are an administrator, four classified support staff and 1.6 classified administration positions.

But no one knows whether all those jobs really will disappear.

One of the factors adding to the uncertainty is that employees still have the opportunity to put in for retirement. Officials have said the final decisions on personnel might not be reached until August.

So far, four elementary school teachers have filed retirement paperwork, and an administrator who will not be replaced is retiring. The district has also combined a purchasing clerk position with another job, and will not replace .6 of a nurse practitioner job.

Following weeks of confusion after the state didn’t offer its usual estimates on district-by-district aid, Niagara Falls ended up receiving $838,000 more in state aid than anticipated. But schools officials have yet to decide how to allocate that money. Do they save jobs? Do they replenish reserves that are being depleted to cover this year’s budget gap?

School Board Vice President Nick Vilardo said Friday the board hasn’t even discussed the topic yet, but his priority will be to save jobs once the talks start.

Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco said her administration’s goal is to eliminate jobs only through attrition and that it will try not to impact classrooms with job cuts.

“We are not overstaffed,” Bianco said. “We need more. Our kids need more than we have.”