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School district to try referendum again to renovate schools with 100 percent state reimbursement

Niagara Falls Repoerter

Mar 20, 2012

By Frank Parlato Jr.

The 11 campuses of the Niagara Falls School District are in need of renovations. Sooner or later, things will have to be done.

Things like roofs, boilers, electrical, lighting, security systems, energy-efficient systems in place of more costly and in many cases failing systems, enhancing playing fields, upgrading classrooms, adding a playground, a kitchen for hot lunches, a new busing loop, needed ventilation, needed exterior and interior work, masonry, windows, adding science and mathematics labs that every school needs.

In short, updating campuses and taking care of physical needs.

Sixty-five million dollars to $75 million is needed.

As Niagara Falls School Superintendent Cynthia Bianco explained, "Just like your house and my house, continuous maintenance is needed."

Rather than put the burden on local taxpayers, the school district is going to try again to get money to fix up schools using a creative plan where state taxpayers pick up 100 percent of the cost.

Last year they tried the plan on a grand scale -- fix up schools so it would be a model for the future, a district with such advanced technology and enhanced classrooms and so many other things that it would have made our poverty-area school district on par with far wealthier districts -- all paid for by the state of New York.

Inexplicably -- perhaps part of our poverty mentality -- the voters decided, by a narrow margin of some 290 votes, that they did not want $130 million to fix up all the schools with 100 percent state reimbursement, so it cost locals nothing.

The voters turned down a chance to get $130 million last year to fix our schools, paid mainly by people from places like New York City, Long Island, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, as well as a little bit from here too.

Truly astounding: All those billions that New York City gets -- disproportionately voted by New York representatives in Albany and paid to New York City for their needs, which we locals also pay for in state taxes, and no one, not once, in New York City ever said no to any freebies in state aid -- and when we had a chance to take some money back to transform our schools into a model school district and give work to hundreds of union workers locally, we said no.

Let's not fix up our schools.

Indeed, not even 10 percent of the city's 26,000 registered voters even came out to vote. Now the school district is going to try again. But for half the money. Just the things the buildings absolutely need. Things that if we don't get state money to pay for now, locals will pay for later.

Sixty-five million dollars to $75 million to fix up our schools, not paid for locals but by the whole state. It is going up for referendum Sept. 25. Sixty percent of the voters, what is called a super majority, have to agree to get the free state money.

Of course, as the argument goes, the, let's call it $70 million, is coming from New York state taxpayers' money. A lot of people here (unlike other parts of the state where people are glad to get state money for their local benefit) will undoubtedly say, "Well, I'm a state taxpayer too, so why should I vote for something that will cost me and the rest of the state money?"

Here is a simple answer: If you don't get the rest of the state to pay for this, you, as a local taxpayer, will pay for it yourself in higher school taxes down the road. These things need to be done. There is nothing frivolous about new roofs, boilers, air conditioning, wiring, etc.

Bianco argued it best when she said, "I love the fact that someone from Long Island is paying for the betterment of Niagara Falls schools."

But you may disagree.

Even though you will pay nothing in local taxes, after all, you are a state taxpayer. Well, let's do some math to see how hard a hit you are going to get as a state taxpayer.

The U.S. census for 2011 estimates 19,465,197 people live in New York state, and 50,151 people live in Niagara Falls, less than 1 percent of the state. Which means the rest of the state will pay 99.74 percent of our local school renovations.

For every hundred dollars, people from New York City, Albany, Rochester and everywhere else in the state will contribute $99.74, and collectively the entire group of state taxpayers living in Niagara Falls will put in a total of 26 cents.

Still you say, 26 cents add up.

Yes, it does. When you do all the math, every single person living in New York state will pay $3.60 each if the Niagara Falls voters decide to pass this latest referendum to fix up their schools. So the argument that Niagara Falls people have to pay state taxes too is valid. Figure on everyone in Niagara Falls paying $3.60 to fix up our schools.

At that rate, you can figure it out: If 19,465,197 (the entire population of New York state) had to pay equally for state taxes, then Niagara Falls, with its 50,000 people, pays $179,808 out of the $70 million needed to fix up our schools The rest of the state pays $69,820,192.

While Niagara Falls will pay $179,808 in state taxes (and nothing in local taxes) to fix up our schools, the people of New York City alone will pay almost half of our school district improvements -- $29 million.

Rochester will pay $756,000.

Buffalo will pay $900,000.

But that is OK, since everyone in the state recently paid $51 each to fix up Buffalo schools on the same plan our district is using.

Niagara Falls taxpayers, in fact, paid around $2.5 million in state taxes to fix up Buffalo schools over the last few years. Buffalo voters were not nearly so stupid as to vote against getting the state's free money.

In any event, the finer details of how this creative plan works might help you make up your mind as to whether you plan to vote and how you might like to vote.

State law reads -- at this moment, and only recently, and subject to change -- that schools in certain poverty areas like Niagara Falls get reimbursed, as it turns out, 100 percent for capital improvements to their schools.

If you don't want to take the state reimbursement while it is available, and prefer to pay for capital improvements locally, then you can do so with increased property taxes down the road. If Niagara Falls taxpayers vote against this referendum and then later wind up doing only half the needed repairs that are in this latest referendum proposal, the average property tax increase for every home in the city will exceed $100 per year.

Still, if you are too genteel to allow people from New York City or Albany to help pay for the improvements of your local schools, then vote against the referendum and expect a rise in property taxes.

The Niagara Falls School Board -- a pretty honest group of civic-minded people -- have approved the plan. This isn't some fly-by-night organization.

Carm Rotella, president of the board, with 30 years as teacher and guidance counselor; Arthur Jocoy, owner of Jocoy's Collision; James Cancemi, Special Ed teacher for 25 years and owner of Cancemi Furniture; Johnny Destino, lawyer; Kevin Dobbs, retired process supervisor for Occidental Chemical; Don J. King, 30 years an elected board member and recipient of New York State School Boards Association Distinguished Service Award; Russell Petrozzi, owner of Capital Cleaners; Robert M. Restaino, special assistant of Niagara County for the state Office of the Medicaid Inspector General and an attorney; and Nick Vilardo, retired from the Niagara Falls Fire Department -- these people, whom voters elected, looked over the plan and approved it. Now it is up to the voters.

The money coming from the state is available. Not taking the money means some other district might just as well take it. And they will. Nobody ever heard of another city anywhere that voted down free money.

Now, for those who love details, or do not believe that it will not cost locals any money in local taxes, here's how it works: The state begins by reimbursing 87 percent of the project because of the level of poverty in this area. And because of relatively new "special legislation" concerning reimbursements, which is subject to change without notice, Niagara Falls is designated especially poor, or "high needs," and another 10 percent is added.

That means the state reimburses the school district 97 percent on the kind of capital project planned here.

Wait a minute, you say, that still leaves 3 percent.

Yes. Every district in the state gets something called "Excel" money.

Niagara Falls has a credit for $5.8 million. They don't have the money in hand, but it is credited and they get the money if and only if they do capital improvements.

This money cannot be used for schools unless they do a renovation project.

Use it or lose it.

Excel will cover the remaining 3 percent.

Bianco said, "I am trying to use our poverty smartly. There are a lot of negatives to being a poor school district. Fortunately, there are some benefits too -- which is more state aid. So why don't we use it?"

So why do voters have to approve it, then?

Because in order to do the project, the school district has to raise the money first, do the work, and then get the 100 percent state reimbursement. That means the school district has to raise several bonds, totaling approximately $70 million, and this requires voter approval.

After getting the money from the bonds, the district will contract to do the work, and after the work is done, then the state reimburses the entire cost -- even the interest on the bonds.

In short, the school district borrows money through bonds, and the state pays off the bonds.

There is another feature to the state taxpayers paying to fix up our local schools. State taxpayers will thereby pay hundreds of local people to do our school-fixing construction project.

There is already a labor agreement in place. The entire work will be done by union workers at prevailing wages. The project will take five years to complete.

Bids will go out -- if the voters approve it this time -- and there will be $70 million in work to be had here.

"Yes, there will be a lot of work for a lot of people who live here and send their kids to our schools," said Mark Laurrie, chief educational administrator for the district.

And it is true -- no local taxes.

Timothy Hyland, administrator for School Business Service, the man who helped Buffalo schools get hundreds of millions using the same plan, confirmed it

"We will be getting something -- something I have never seen before in my entire career -- 100 percent financing for capital improvements," Hyland said. "We are using the state formulas in a manner that we can maximize the reimbursement because of our poverty. We're doing right renovations -- capital improvements to the facilities to keep them up to date."

"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.

"We would be irresponsible not to apply for this 100 percent state aid."



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.