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Teachers Islandwide face layoffs in budget crunch

Fears that Long Island schools face widespread job losses next school year ratcheted up a notch Wednesday, with the announcement that layoff notices have been delivered to 59 teachers in Lindenhurst - one of many local districts planning to trim personnel.

Last night, Lindenhurst school board and teacher union officials pointed fingers at each other as being responsible for the crisis, at a budget meeting attended by about 400 people. The board president blamed the union for rejecting a wage freeze, an argument dismissed by his union counterpart.

The conflict underscored worries across the Island.

In Northport-East Northport, authorities Tuesday posted preliminary plans to lay off 40 teachers, 10 teaching assistants and five teaching aides. Middle Country has notified its union of plans to cut five teachers and as many as 23 teaching assistants. Patchogue-Medford has raised the possibility of 50 to 70 layoffs.

Statewide and on the Island, upcoming job losses for school workers are expected to be the worst in six years or more, with virtually all districts eliminating positions at least through retirement and most districts imposing layoffs as well, according to a survey by the State Council of School Superintendents. Projections are based largely on Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed $1.1 billion school-aid cut next year - a plan that lawmakers could largely reject.

In Lindenhurst, officials warn that they could be forced in a worst-case scenario to cut student services - for example, reducing full-day kindergarten classes to half-day sessions.

"It's terrible," said Richard Nathan, Lindenhurst superintendent, who added that he had personally helped hire all the teachers now slated to be laid off, some of whom have seven or eight years' experience. "I feel like the father who has to choose some of his children."

Lindenhurst officials confirm that many jobs would be saved if lawmakers restore Paterson's proposed cuts. But 22 positions are expected to be lost in any case due to falling enrollment. Local officials say potential cuts are aimed primarily at holding next year's tax increase to less than 4 percent.

During last night's discussion at Lindenhurst High School, board president Ed Murphy said leaders of the district's 580-member teacher union had rejected a proposed two-year pay freeze in return for saving jobs. Next year, teachers are due a 3.25 percent raise, plus step increases averaging 2.75 percent, the district said. Union president Rose Russo said her union leadership had offered short-term alternatives to a freeze. "This crisis cannot be blamed on teachers," she said.

To some extent, threatened layoffs are part of an annual ritual conducted by school districts in an effort to extract more aid from Albany and contract concessions from unions. Legislative leaders already have predicted that much of the governor's proposed reduction will be restored.

Still, teacher representatives are taking the threat seriously. New York State United Teachers, an umbrella union group, says responses to an ongoing survey indicate widespread layoff plans statewide, including more than a hundred jobs in Albany and hundreds more in Rochester.

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