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N-W dealing with serious budget issues

by jmaloni
Thu, Feb 17th 2011 01:00 pm

by Susan Mikula Campbell

This time, it won't be like putting a bandage on a skinned knee. This time, the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education, like other school boards across the state, will have to do some serious surgery on its school budget to make up for state aid cuts.

Budget cuts this time, officials say, are likely to include people and programs that directly affect students - maybe sports coaches/programs, maybe successful programs like the new after-school Twilight program that helped 20 students graduate last year. The only other option, one that still could be necessary, is a tax increase.

Gov. Cuomo's proposed budget would mean a $4,557,071 or 17.6 percent cut in aid for Niagara-Wheatfield, according to N-W Business Director Kerin Dumphrey. This is the biggest percentage cut among all Niagara County districts, with Lewiston-Porter coming in a close second with a 17.32 percent cut.

The school board in recent months has been receiving reports from district principals and officials on budget requests. After last week's Board of Education meeting, N-W Superintendent Carl Militello announced that the board would meet again on Wednesday, Feb. 16, and immediately go into executive session to discuss budget issues. Regular public board meetings will continue at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month, but the closed-to-the-public budget workshops will continue on the third Wednesday of March and April.

"You've never faced a financial year like this one," Militello warned the board at last week's meeting, telling them the final result would have to be both acceptable for the needs of the students, and financially responsible to the taxpayers.

Militello wrote on the district's website: "These are very difficult times for each and every public employee within the state of New York. Schools are being extremely damaged by the governor's budget and the possibility of a tax cap. During these difficult times it will be extremely vital that all of us draw closer together in a collaborative manner to ensure the future quality of public schools. In addition, our major focal point is to come through these challenging times stronger than before the crisis."

Affecting N-W's cut in aid, Dumphrey said, was it being considered a wealthy district. N-W has one of the lowest free/reduced school lunch participation in the county at 27 percent, and the state considers anything below 30 percent as not in need. Also, the district has had no or minimal tax increases in recent years, indicating an ability to raise money from taxes, Militello said.

N-W's aid cut was reduced by being the only district in the county that qualified for state administrative efficiency aid ($239,198), which is based on having a low percentage of the budget spent on central administration costs, Dumphrey said.

The good news is that the district has already implemented or will soon implement a long list of cuts (ranging from a hiring freeze to cuts in early and late bus runs), but even with those cuts, the school board will still need to find another $2.1 million, either in cuts or taxes.

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