by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — After three years of systematic losses of state-financed revenue, the Niagara-Wheatfield community is on the precipice of action.
Facing a total loss of $17 million since the 2010-11 school year – as long as projected figures hold true in the yet-unadopted 2013-14 state budget – staff, students and parents in the district will rally to throw their dissatisfaction with Albany's education policies in the open.
"This rally is about giving the facts to people," Niagara-Wheatfield Teachers President Kevin Rustowicz said. "This isn't about last year. What's done is done. We lost a ton of teachers and programming. But what we're looking to do is have parents and other community members say enough is enough to Albany and that they can't do these cuts like they have over the last three years."
The rally, which will be run from 4 to 6 p.m. tonight outside Niagara-Wheatfield High School, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston, will precede the district's next school board meeting, expected to begin at 7 p.m.
It will feature several individuals picketing the street outside the building with signs, while speakers, including students in the district's five schools, explaining how state aid cuts hurt them directly.
With the picketing, it'll mark the second consecutive year financial trouble will have caused employees to stand in front of the high school with signs prior to a school board meeting. In January 2012, members of the district's teachers and service unions both picketed then-Superintendent Carl Militello, who retired the next month after negotiatating a buyout with the school board.
The situation with Militello was part of an overall tough lesson for the district, as they attempted to override New York state's property tax levy threshold. The measure ultimately failed and officials were forced to make a second attempt with a levy increase of almost 5 percent.
What resulted from the second vote was the finishing touches of the district eliminating more than 90 positions within the last two years. But what hurts most of all is the district facing what appears to be a $1.4 million gap heading into next year despite a maximum levy increase of 5.58 percent possible.
Filling the gap is going to require outside-the-box thinking by Interim Superintendent James Knowles and his staff, since there's very little fat left on the bones of the district.
"We're going to have to do some creative things to bring (the deficit) down," Knowles said. "We have to work to do on that front. We haven't made any hard decisions when it come to it yet, but they will be coming soon."
One area the board could save a little bit of money is on the administrative level, with the retirement of former Business Manager Kerin Dumphrey last week.
Should the district's school board choose to, Dumphrey's departure could lead to a shared services contract through Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The board, also looking for a permanent superintendent to assume control beginning in July, could also wait to let the new boss make a decision.
But filling Dumphrey's role in the short term, creating the budget and making the creative decisions needed to get a passable plan, will be a familiar face in terms of recent district history. Richard Hitzges, who filled in as business manager during last year's turnover, will again assume the role. This time, though, he's working through BOCES on a two-day-per-week contract.
"He's familiar with the district," Board President Steven Sabo said. "He helped put the budget together, so he knows his way around the district's finances."