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Williamsville is a high-rent school district.

Since 1989, district taxpayers have paid $2.6 million in lease and maintenance fees to Inducon East Joint Venture for three properties, -- two on Lawrence Bell Drive and one on Earhart Drive -- according to school officials.

The arrangement seems to be a lose-lose situation for taxpayers because Inducon also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks from the Amherst Industrial Development Agency to build the complex at 415 to 435 Lawrence Bell Drive, parts of which now house School District offices.

Inducon, an Amherst land development corporation, still receives a tax abatement -- and will until 1998 -- for property at 60 to 90 Earhart Drive, part of which hold the school district's maintenance vehicles and shop.

The district also rents space at 410 Lawrence Bell Drive for a warehouse and print shop.

Most school districts house their offices in school buildings, not in leased space.

Ann B. Fuqua, who became Williamsville schools superintendent earlier this year, says time has come to change the district's leasing strategy.

"The rent continues to go up, and we don't have any indication that it will go down," Ms. Fuqua said Friday. "It's really in the interest of taxpayers to look at other alternatives. We need to look at solutions that are more responsible financially."

A 1994 cost analysis entitled "Rent vs. Own" indicated the district would save $3.3 million by 2011 if it builds a $4.3 million facility and finances it with a $2.5 million bond, with the rest to come from surplus funds.

An informal survey of area school districts showed only Williamsville rents administrative office space.

Clarence Central Schools, for example, house their offices in the senior high school at 9625 Main St. Lake Shore Central splits administrative offices among the high school, middle school and elementary school.

The Amherst, Cheektowaga, East Aurora, Frontier, Grand Island and West Seneca school districts also house their administrative offices in school-owned property.

Depew Central Schools use part of a former elementary school at 591 Terrace Blvd. for central offices.

The remaining space in the building is leased to the Erie I Board of Cooperative Educational Services and a day-care center.

How did the wealthy Williamsville district -- with a budget topping $100 million, the state's fifth largest -- allow itself to spend millions to rent administrative offices when most school districts use their own buildings?

"I look at it from a business point of view," said Richard J. Sterben, Inducon president. "They look at it as academicians," admitting the district "hasn't had much luck with the taxpayers" in its attempts to win support for building central offices.

Sterben has been the landlord for Williamsville schools since June 1, 1988. The first lease -- for property at 415 Lawrence Bell Drive -- was signed after the resounding defeat of a $15.5 million bond issue the previous March 1988.

The money would have provided a high school swimming pool, an elementary school and a facility for the district's central offices. The offices had moved into Casey Middle School from leased space in Georgetown Plaza earlier in the 1980s but had to relocate again because the school needed more classrooms to handle a growing enrollment.

"The administrative office building was never brought up again," said Jacqueline Paone, district spokeswoman.

"If they would have passed the bond issue, things would have been so different now. There would be space for the kids, space for staff," she said.

She added that the other projects in the 1988 proposal eventually were approved in later bond issues.

In 1993 and 1994, the landlord and tenant tried to negotiate a solution in view of the school administrators' need for additional space and renovations at their offices on Lawrence Bell.

The schools seriously considered a rent-to-own option for the property with a purchase price of $3.2 million. That, however, was ruled out by school attorneys as illegal under state guidelines.

In 1994, the district considered building central offices on school-owned property off Bassett Road, behind Maple East Elementary School. The $4.3 million project encountered intense neighborhood opposition and never was put to a vote.

"The people became unglued," former Superintendent Francis Murphy recalled. "They had a legitimate beef. They were fed up with buildings going up, but they jumped the gun."

Murphy, who said he worked on the project from his first day to his last day as Williamsville school chief, maintained the public opposition in no way stopped the Bassett project.

"We didn't need zoning approval," he said Friday in a phone interview from his new superintendent post in Scarsdale. "We can build wherever we want as long as we own the property. They didn't deter us. The numbers didn't work."

Apparently they still don't.

In its latest proposal, made in September 1995, Inducon offered to sell the Lawrence Bell facility for $3.7 million. The price included land, various engineering and legal fees and the costs of relocating other tenants housed in the building.

The district is considering the offer as well as other options, Ms. Fuqua said.

Sterben has suggested the district sell the Bassett Road land to nearby Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital and use the funds to help pay for the Lawrence Bell building.

Last Tuesday, yet another one-year lease expired on the Lawrence Bell properties. The district -- with nothing on the table but a two-year-old long-range planning recommendation -- has been granted a three-month extension.

The School Board has designated the lease a "top priority for this year," Ms. Fuqua said. "We have decisions to make. Three months from Oct. 1, we expect to make a decision about this lease."

The lease arrangements were tabled at the last board meeting and will be taken up in executive session at Tuesday's meeting.

"Much discussion needs to take place," Ms. Fuqua said. "I don't think anyone has dropped the ball. They've been grappling with issue, and there hasn't been a clear resolution."

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