December 19, 2006

Niagara Falls Residents Speak Out on Plan to Close 2 Schools Next Year

By Paul Westmoore, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Dec. 19--NIAGARA FALLS -- More than 50 people, including a sixth-grader, spoke out Monday on the proposed closing of at least two city schools next year, with reactions ranging from objections to the plan to reluctant endorsements of closing 60th Street Elementary and Niagara Middle schools.

Comments came at a public forum held by the Niagara Falls Board of Education in the 66th Street School auditorium, the fourth such forum in the past three weeks.

The board is considering three possible scenarios, which all call for closing 60th Street Elementary and Niagara Middle schools. Two of them also call for closing 66th Street School.

Board officials say they have to close some school buildings to compensate for the rapid decline in the district's student population over the past five years. According to records in the Niagara Falls Library's Local History Department and district figures, the district's enrollment has dropped by about 1,400 students over that period.

Sixth-grader Breanna Leslie-Skye was not in favor of closing Niagara Middle School next year. She said the board should phase out the school so students there can complete their years there.

"I want the honors program [students] to stay together in Niagara Middle School because we worked so hard to pass that test to get into it. It was really hard for us to adjust to this school for the honors program, and now that we've done that, we'll have to adjust to a different school next year," she said.

Leslie-Skye said if the School Board wants to close the school it should "phase it out over a couple of years to make sure enrollment projections are accurate," giving the students currently at Niagara Middle School time to complete their studies there before they go on to Niagara Falls High School.

Her grandmother, Barbara Skye, said she felt it was important to keep the "merit class" together, adding that a Niagara Middle School phaseout might be a legitimate option.

School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto said he understood why Leslie-Skye was in the honors program and complemented her for her "well-thought-out arguments." He said the honors program would continue but was not sure whether it would be located at Gaskill or LaSalle Middle School, or whether each school would have an honors program.

Granto said something has to be done because the decline in enrollment is real. He said the current enrollment is at 7,666 students, a figure that could drop to the 7,000 mark in the next five years.

Under all three scenarios, the district's five nonschool buildings -- the education center, the central office building on Walnut Avenue, the Annex Building on Sixth Street and the warehouse and maintenance buildings -- would be relocated to two of the former schools. The other buildings would be put up for sale.

Not everyone was on board.

Driana Winker, the mother of two 66th Street school pupils, wanted her fifth-grader to go to Niagara Middle School next year. "I'm not happy," she said. "I'm more concerned about the middle school where my son will go next year. I'm thinking about sending him to the Catholic middle school next year or maybe somewhere outside the district." The School Board is slated to decide next month which schools it will close.

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