BY RICK FORGIONE

forgioner@gnnewspaper.com

The Niagara Falls School District can save as much as $4 million by following one of four scenarios recommending closing schools next fall.

Most of that figure, taken from the scenario that calls for closing one middle school and one elementary school, would be covered by eliminating 99 staff positions, including 59 teachers and administrators.

“I wasn’t expecting the savings to be that high, I was thinking $1.5 million or $2 million at best,” said School Superintendent Carmen Granto, who presented the financial and staffing impacts attached to the four options during the board of education meeting Wednesday. “This is the first time the board has seen them with dollar signs. These are our best guesses right now.”

A committee consisting of district administrators has created the list of possible school closings to address decreasing student enrollment. In three of the scenarios, sixth-grade students would be moved to the elementary level, one middle school would be closed and the two remaining schools would be turned into junior high buildings.

Another scenario includes closing one middle school, likely to be Niagara Middle, and 60th Street Elementary. According to the figures Granto released Wednesday, that plan would net the district the most savings at $4 million. All but $600,000 of that would come from staffing cuts.

The fourth and final scenario calls for closing 60th Street and 66th Street schools and sending their students to Niagara Middle, which would be turned into an elementary school. While that option would close the most schools, it would only save $3 million, with most of that coming from cutting 74 staff members.

The least amount of savings the district would realize is $2.1 million under the first scenario, which calls for closing just Niagara Middle School and keeping sixth, seventh and eighth grades at the middle school level.

While all four options will help the district reduce its budget deficit next year — projected to be as high as $9 million — Granto insists the final decision will not be made based on financial savings.

“If we had all the money in the world, I would still be making these recommendations to you,” he told board members. “This is about doing what’s best for kids.”

The decision on which scenario to follow ultimately will be up to board of education members, but not before the public has the chance to speak out. On Wednesday, Granto asked that board members narrow down the four options, or modify any of them, by their Nov. 9 meeting.

Board members don’t think that will be enough time.

“We take this very seriously and we have a lot of questions that we can’t answer tonight,” member Christopher Brown said.

Board President Robert Kazeangin agreed, saying he’d rather use the Nov. 9 meeting as a discussion session and make the decisions later in the month.

“We need to set up some time to meet on this topic as a board,” Kazeangin said.

The purpose of setting the Nov. 9 deadline, Granto said, was to allow for the scheduling of public forums in late November and December. However, he conceded the board may need more time to debate the issue before paring down the scenarios and presenting them to residents.

Meanwhile, one staff member decided not to wait until the forums to speak up. Joseph Catalano, a longtime employee with the district and current president of the teachers union, criticized moving the sixth grade back to the elementary level during the meeting. He pointed out that would bring together 4-year-old pre-kindergartners in the same halls as sixth-graders, some of whom could be as old as age 14.

“Is this really what’s best for kids?” Catalano said.

Contact Rick Forgione at (716) 282-2311, Ext. 2257

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