Three big contenders battle for Falls’ school board

BY MATT RICCHIAZZI

There are two seats up for election on the City of Niagara Falls’ school board, which will be held on May 17th. The full slate of candidates is still in flux, with a crucial filing deadline of April 27. As a body, the school board has immense power. Beyond hiring and firing administrative personnel, the board must approve budgets and union contracts with the district’s teachers, administrators, and laborers.

The 2015-16 budget exceeded $133 million, serving 7,101 students in 11 schools including eight elementary schools, two preparatory schools, and one high school providing instruction from Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12. That figure is up $7.24 million from 2014-15, $4.5 million of which is because of increased debt service costs associated with the district’s “Inventing Tomorrow” project.

Only 20% of the district’s 2015-16 budget was generated from local property tax revenues; while 74.9% came from state aid; and 5.1% from other revenue.

The district spends 40.6% of all revenue on salaries and an additional 23.9% on benefits, a result of decades old union contracts.  Over $15 million is spent on administration costs (which includes administrators’ compensation); $93.4 million on programing (which includes teachers’ compensation); and $25.1 million on capital improvements.

According to the Niagara Falls City School District website, The Niagara Falls High School’s 5-year cohort graduation rate, inclusive of August graduates, at 79%, is better than the state average of 74%. In 2012, the district claimed that 85% of Niagara Falls High School graduates received a Regents Diploma or better. The percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch is 75.14%.

Under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget – with the legislature recently repealing the Gap Elimination Adjustment – will increase state aid to all districts by $3.55 billion. It is unclear how much additional aid might flow through Niagara Falls.

School board members are unpaid, must be residents of the district, and represent students, parents, and taxpayers. Those nine volunteers have final say in all matters pertaining to finances, operations, and curriculum in the city.

Among the announced contenders for the two seats are incumbent board member Carmelette Rotella, who served as board president after retiring from a teaching career with the district. Rotella also sits on the Niagara Falls Housing Authority’s board of directors.

Niagara Falls attorney Robert Restaino, an incumbent on the school board, is also running.

Restaino, a former Niagara Falls City Court Judge, and father of recently elected City Court Judge Danielle Restaino, is in general law practice.

Among Restaino’s clients is the City of Niagara Falls who retained him to advise the city on conflicts between its city charters and ordinances.

Restaino has been mentioned as a future mayoral candidate and the draft Restaino for mayor last year failed when Restaino himself refused to run, preferring to aid his daughter’s ultimately successful campaign for judge.

Attorney and former State Senate candidate Johnny Destino is also expected to file petitions. Destino presently is employed at city hall as the head of the purchasing department. Destino was a former school board member.

Some observers say that these three candidates – all with strong name recognition – may prompt the typically low-turnout school board contest into a record breaking voter turn-out election.

Only two seats are open, and the highest two vote getters are elected to the board.

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