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Editorial: Self-defeating residency rule

Before the Niagara Falls School Board votes on whether to fire Adrienne Sayers on Thursday over doubts about her residency, its members should consider who will replace the Spanish teacher and whether this rarely used action will send a negative message to other potential candidates.

Instead, the School Board might want to change an arcane rule adhered to by very few large school districts. Buffalo repealed its early 1990s residency rule in 2011.

Tellingly, the Niagara Falls district struggles to attract teachers despite offering a median salary of more than $93,000, the highest among 37 districts in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Daniel Weiss, a Niagara Falls teacher and president of the city’s teachers’ union, believes the school district might have to “revisit” the residency rule issue someday to fill the need for quality teachers.

School district leaders argue that these teachers are being paid well – for questionable results, but that’s another editorial – so, why not require them to contribute to the tax base that funds their checks?

Living side by side with their students certainly has its benefits, but forcing the issue may not be the best policy. The school district might instead offer some sort of incentive to persuade prospective educators to live in Niagara Falls. The district could work on a plan with the union, which has filed several court challenges to the residency rules over the years, to no avail.

The News’ Dan Herbeck recently reported on the case of Sayers, a 22-year district employee who discovered that she was being followed – by the district. Administrators had hired private detectives and, in May, sent Sayers a letter informing her that there was “reason to believe” she violated the residency policy by living with her husband in Amherst. Letters from the district indicated to The News that she has been under investigation and surveillance since last year.

Sayers says she is being singled out, while other politically connected educators escape attention. The district denies it is acting in any biased way.

If the district terminates Sayers, that action will signal a sea change. The district currently has 580 union employees and has acted to fire someone over residency issues about once a year since the policy went into effect in 1994. Longtime School Board attorney Angelo Massaro said the district has terminated, or tried to terminate, about “25 to 30” employees for alleged violations of the residency policy.

Sayers, who has retained an attorney but has not decided if she will sue the district, firmly believes she did not violate the residency policy. She said she and her first husband owned a home in Niagara Falls for 15 years, but sold it in 2015 after their divorce. She has rented homes in the Falls and sometimes stayed overnight in her apartment or at her parents, or at the Amherst home of her second husband, Benjamin, who is required to live in the town because his three sons from a previous marriage attend schools in Williamsville.

Sayers’ reasons for staying outside Niagara Falls seem reasonable. So, too, does most of her argument against the hard-and-fast residency rule.

The School Board should consider policies that help retain and recruit good teachers, and not worry so much about where those educators sleep at night.

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