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SCHOOL REFERENDUM HERE A MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR REAL IMPROVEMENT: Downstate district to get funding Falls voters rejected

ANALYSIS By Frank Parlato Jr. and Mike Hudson

What were they thinking? The voters who came out to vote down the plan to improve the Niagara Falls School District -- what were they thinking?

Back in January, Niagara Falls School District officials outlined a plan to borrow up to $130 million for a capital projects plan.

The district, near its debt-borrowing limit, held a Feb. 15 referendum to borrow the money. In order to pass, voters had to support the project by a 60 percent margin.

It failed by slightly less than 250 votes. Had 125 voters gone the other way, it would have passed.

Most voters didn't even bother to show up at the polls, and those who did failed to realize that the project the district had planned would have resulted in no new taxes -- the school district has not raised taxes in 17 years -- and no spending of local money.

The district is considered "high needs" by the state Education Department. The state reimburses 98 percent of money spent on capital projects in high needs districts.

Of the $130 million the school was to have borrowed, $127.4 million would have been paid by the state. The $2.6 million not covered by the state would have come from an Excel grant the district already had received.

The irony is that, since the Niagara Falls School District didn't get the money for its capital project, some other district got it, and Niagara Falls taxpayers will still pay taxes for those school improvements anyway.

No state tax money was saved. The money will simply go to another school district downstate.

It seems that the people most affected by improving the schools did not care to vote. Of an estimated 26,000 residents of Niagara Falls who were eligible, less than 10 percent actually voted.

There are 7,000 children in the district. There are perhaps about the same number of parents as students. Even these did not vote.

Just 2,400 bothered to cast a ballot, and of those, 1,274 voted against the proposal.

"The 98 percent reimbursement (from the state) makes this work," school board President Russ Petrozzi said repeatedly. "We want to take advantage of it while it's there."

Councilman Charles Walker weighed in, explaining it was "a $130 million investment to better educate our children, give them better facilities to be educated in, at zero dollars. If we don't apply for this, someone else will."

Community activist Ron Cunningham agreed.

"We have to explain (to voters) it's not going to cost us money," he said.

It was like fixing our local schools for free. The projects would have taken six years to complete and would have employed hundreds of local construction and trades workers. They would have funded renovations and upgrades at 11 school buildings and athletic fields.

We would have borrowed, and Albany would have paid.

What we would have gotten was increased classroom sizes, high-tech smart desks, science laboratories and 81,000 square feet in additions.

Classrooms would have been made larger and more functional to accommodate new and emerging technologies. Many existing classroom sizes are less than 700 square feet in Niagara Falls. The standard size required by the state education department is 770 square feet. The plans would have expanded the classrooms to 850 square feet. Maple and Hyde Park Elementary, for instance, have only 5 percent of existing classrooms meeting state standards in terms of size.

But some 1,274 voters did not want free, larger classrooms for the children of this area. Although they probably don't mind if Long Island, Depew, or some other smarter city takes any or all of the $130 million in state reimbursement for which they will pay.

Students would have had expanded use of technology. There was a plan for flexible furniture, providing increased interaction through technology.

There were to be library/media centers; special education classrooms; science, technology, engineering and math labs; and art and music classrooms. New fenced sports fields, learning gardens and playgrounds. A stage added to the gymnasium. Classrooms enlarged and renovated.

"What we lack now is the ability to create environments in which students can apply what they have learned or heard or read, and that's what this project will create a space to do," Schools Superintendent Cynthia Bianco told the Niagara Falls Reporter.

Soccer fields would have been re-graded and the eight-lane track would have been resurfaced. The football fields at LaSalle Preparatory School and Nicoletti Field and the football/baseball field at Sal Maglie Stadium would have been replaced with a synthetic turf. Groups like Cataract and Niagara Falls Junior Football, Niagara Police Athletic League, Niagara University and the district summer sports camp also would have used these facilities. All of this coming at no cost to local taxpayers.

Strangely, some voices -- of those who lived outside Niagara Falls -- were against it. What may have killed the plan was a session hosted by Republican Party leaders at the Giacomo Hotel in January.

"We always hear that there will be no local tax burden, but I'm sorry, we pay state taxes," said Tom Stevenson, a Wheatfield resident involved in local politics. "We are the highest-taxed state in the nation."

Another person who does not live in the city added a strong voice against the project. He was Niagara Falls block club president and Town of Niagara resident Roger Spurback. Always a strong advocate of the schools when his children attended them, he has changed his tune now that he's retired and moved to the suburbs.

Former school board member and local businessman Chris Brown also stepped forward to help kill the project.

Brown said, "New York state just can't afford it."

Albany guys and suburban guys worked to get the public to vote against the project. Ironically, neither Brown, Spurback nor Stevenson objected publicly when Mayor Paul Dyster actually did raise taxes here on two occasions, most recently in January.

Brown's sister-in-law works for Dyster, of course, and Spurback has been the recipient of one of Dyster's silly "citizen of the year" awards.

Their argument was, in effect, it's not exactly "free money," no matter what percentage is reimbursed. State money is still taxpayer money, and with the state facing a $10 billion deficit, it's not advisable to be earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars to any school district at this point.

But the money was available. And some other school will take it.

"With 68 percent of our kids living in poverty, we have to go above and beyond what ordinary districts have to go through to get these kids in school and to achieve," Bianco said. "They said to us, you would be irresponsible not to apply for it. What happened with this last referendum is that there is a whole new set of voters who came out, 600 or something, who usually are complacent, or just don't get involved, who came out specifically to vote against it."

It may be that 72 percent of the voters here don't have families and don't have kids in school. This may be the thing they vote on to show their displeasure with taxes in general.

"Meanwhile, they're building some project in Long Island with our money," said Deputy Superintendent Mark Laurie.

It was a loss, a missed opportunity. And the children of Niagara Falls, the vast majority of whom live in poverty, will pay the price.

Is it any wonder that people -- particularly the young, working families any city needs to survive -- continue to leave Niagara Falls in droves?

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 22, 2011