Niagara Gazette

September 3, 2013

Niagara-Wheatfield officials ready to tackle challenges

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Niagara-Wheatfield, which opens its doors to students for the start of a new school year this morning, has seen better days. Even its new superintendent recognizes the struggles everyone in the district faces.

It's why Lynn Marie Fusco is looking for answers from the best available place. She's asking the people.

In her greeting written on the district's webpage, Fusco asks viewers — presumably parents and students — to answer three pressing questions relating to the future of the district. Ranging from determining pressing needs this upcoming year to identifying the aspects parents want to see remain no matter what, the survey is designed to inform the new superintendent about the situation she walked into when she accepted the job this past spring.

"It takes a lot of communication to fix this," she said. "We're getting a better grasp of what (problems exist). The next question is 'How?' That's easy, because everyone wants to tell you."

The district webpage is available by visiting www.nwcsd.k12.ny.us

As she's identifying the solutions people want to see, she said she needs to continue dealing with challenges of the real world she faces. Over the last three years, money has become the district's enemy, through questionable accounting practices exposed by a pair of external audits and an unfriendly state budget holding promised funding in Albany.

So using the information parents and students submit to her is going to present her with new issues, as the wants and desires need to be scaled back to meet the means of providing education.

Still, she's remaining positive in her first year in Bergholz.

"Designing the how has to be a collaborative effort," she said. "How do we preserve the things people say are valuable and how do we address the concerns? That's going to be a significant challenge. I don't want to minimize what we're facing, but I do want to maximize what people are sharing in order to move the district forward."

Her intention through the process is to forget about the past. The district has seen a multimillion-dollar surplus evaporate in a handful of years, which has seen former superintendent Carl Militello retire amid calls for his dismissal, a proposed 9.9 percent property tax levy increase defeated and an interim superintendent and an interim business manager attempt to keep the district afloat before this past year's budget proposal again failed at the polls.

The mentality throughout the district, as more than 80 employees have been laid off or had employment reduced in the past two years, has been one of survival. Fusco said it has to change.

"When you're in survivalmode, you need to get to the next level, where there's more hope," she said.

Some hope may be arriving in the form of a full-time business manager. The district identified its choice to take over the district's finances, as the school board approved Allison Brady to lead the money department.

Brady, who'll begin Sept. 30 because she needs to provide 30 days notice to her current employer, the Barker Central School District, will receive a prorated salary of $107,000 for the year.

As part of her employment, Brady will also be responsible for 15 percent of her health insurance premium, with the other 85 percent covered by the district.

"Her knowledge of school finances is second to none," board President Steve Sabo said.

The board will hold its next regular meeting at 7 p.m. tonight in the adult learning center of the high school, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston.

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.