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By Frank Parlato Jr.

A potential plan to reduce the Niagara Falls Board of Education nine-seat school board to five is one of the dumbest ideas proposed in a long time.

School board member Johnny G. Destino, who was elected to a five-year term last May, said downsizing the board would save money on conference and travel expenses and "rightsize" the board to the current population of Niagara Falls.

Although the idea attracts a lot of publicity, the kind that reads well as sound bites -- cutting government and reducing expenses -- it really is not a well-thought-out plan.

Destino's plan is based on the notion that we had it exactly right back in 1951 when voters decided by referendum to have 9 members on the board of education, or about one per 10,000 people living in the city.

Now that the city's population has dropped by nearly 40,000 residents, Destino's simplistic plan suggests we eliminate 4 school board members.

But who's to say one school board member for every 10,000 is right?

Keeping it at 9 simply means we have one school board member for every 5,500 people or so.

"Fewer board members allows for the citizens to more rapidly change course when they perceive the direction we are heading in is the wrong one," Destino told the Niagara Gazette.

That's true -- but who's to say, when we rapidly change course, that it's in the right direction?

Rapid course changes are not always best for school districts.

It's not like we are saving money by downsizing.

School board members are unpaid.

The whole idea of a school board, unlike other elected positions, is that board members are not politicians -- but regular, local people who have, in most cases, an interest in seeing children better educated in their community.

In many cases, board members are interested in protecting the taxpayers from paying too much for the services.

The school board is supposed to be a voluntary watchdog group of local residents that strike a balance between cost and services.

Why is five going to be better than 9? It would save maybe $20,000 on annual travel and conference expenses in a budget of $125 million.

But, because majority vote rules on a school board, Destino's plan would allow, instead of the present five, a mere three people, any group of three, to control the whole district.

Things could change real fast.

Destino said. "Fewer board members won't diminish our level of representation."

His plan calls for one board member being elected every year which could mean that "one vote can be enough to put us on the right path," Destino said.

Or the wrong one.

Destino's plans means less voices, less representation, less discussion.

If his plan goes through, a superintendent, for instance, who wanted to control the school board for her or his own selfish ends now has only three to persuade.

Or suppose the unions want to advance something for their own special interest. All the union would have to do is get three people elected and they control a tax and spending agenda.

Suppose an anti-tax crowd -- maybe three who don't have children in schools -- gets on the board.

Now they can cut wages, shutter schools.

Three is easy. It is hard to elect five of one stripe.

This proposal lessens, if not defeats, the whole idea of people representing their school district and having a voice in the education of their children.

A petition would require the signatures of 500 qualified voters and must be submitted to the district clerk's office by April 27 in order to make this idea subject to referendum on the May 17 ballot.

In the end, it's like cutting the number of a jury or the number of justices on the Supreme Court. It doesn't save money, but it takes away voices and debate and the exchange of ideas.

The downsizing plan is in essence the public's decision on whether the entire district should be in the hands of any three people aligned together.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 12, 2011