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Board seeks action on sale of Lowry Middle School

With Kevin Gersh showing no signs of fulfilling his contract to buy the former Lowry Middle School, the North Tonawanda School Board on Tuesday voted to hold a special meeting next week to declare that agreement in default.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the district administration building, 175 Humphrey St.

Last month the board gave Gersh until this Friday to close the deal after he gave the school district assurances the sale would be completed in each of the last five months, according to district officials. But there's been no sign of movement to date.

Gersh, 38, an administrator of Montessori schools on Long Island, signed a contract in October 2005 to buy the closed school for $700,000 and made a $70,000 deposit. District residents approved the deal in a referendum Dec. 9, 2005.

Gersh said he plans to open a college-level academy at Lowry for special-needs students.

In spite of Gersh's repeated assurances, Board Vice President David Rechin said, "We've heard nothing from him about closing. Basically, what we're saying tonight is if you haven't closed by the time we meet [next week], we are going to find you in default and take steps to end the contract.

"Don't get me wrong. We want the building sold," Rechin emphasized. "We still want Gersh to buy it. We still want the Gersh Academy to be part of North Tonawanda. That's what we really want. But it needs to happen."

"That's why we're a little mystified. We've received no explanation about what's causing the delay. So we feel it's necessary to force the issue," Rechin said.

Board President Scott Schultz said, "Right now, time is of the essence. If he doesn't come through, we're ready to rule he's in default. Now he could come back with a court stay by Friday. Then the courts will have to decide what we can and can't do with this.

"We're saying we want to sell the building, so let's do it. We're willing to give [Gersh] early occupancy -- to move in and take over everything as though he owns the building and get going on the academy -- while he finishes up with the funding, which he already supposedly has. But if he doesn't do something fast, we'll just put the building back up for sale," Schultz said.

The board was unanimous on that issue.

In other business, the board voted to file a notice of claim against the city for failing to collect about $17,000 in penalties for the district from property owners who were more than a month late in paying their school taxes last fall.

Action came after Assistant Superintendent Susan L. Villers said the district discovered City Treasurer Leslie Stolzenfels, who collects school taxes, charged late payers only a one percent penalty when the law says she should have charged them two percent.

Villiers said that amounts to roughly $17,000 in penalties that should have been collected and paid to the district. She said that responsibility lies with the city.

She added she did not know what happened because as far as she can tell the treasurer has always charged the appropriate penalty for late taxes.

Board Attorney Bernard Freedman said filing a notice of claim within 90 days of discovering the shortage will give the school district a year to try to work out an agreement with the city to give the district its money. At the same time, Freedman said the notice of claim also will preserve the board's right to take legal action against the city, if need be, to recover the money. He indicated he was sure the two entities would find a way to resolve the matter.


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