While the School Board wrangles with Kevin Gersh over his contract to buy Lowry Middle School, the first five students who signed up to attend Gersh Academy were touring the city Tuesday and getting settled in their college residence on Payne Avenue.
The students -- who eventually hope to attend Lowry School when it becomes a college-level institution for special-needs students -- are temporarily attending Daemen College in Snyder to begin their college work as members of the Gersh Experience at Daemen College.
Hailing from all over the state, the students say they like the city and the Gersh program. They especially enjoy their individual rooms on Payne Avenue, the students said.
"I really like my room. It's spacious and has a walk-in closet," said Vida Heathcote, 20, of Babylon, L.I.
Heathcote said she wants to major in human-resource management "because I like business and I like working with people a lot." She said she feels the particular attention she will get in the Gersh program will provide her the training and tools she will need to deal with people appropriately and be successful in her field.
Bill J. Swanekamp, 22, of Hamburg, a transfer student from Erie Community College's South Campus, said, "I just started, but so far this has been a great experience for me. I'm enjoying everything. I really like living here. The residence is really nice, and you're close to businesses so you can just walk a little way to get anything you need."
As for Daemen, "The people there are very nice, and the program seems wonderful so far. I don't think things could be any better. It's the right place for me. I haven't been anywhere else where I've felt that way," Swanekamp said.
Loren Lacon, 20, of New Paltz, agreed. "It's nice that everything is so close. You don't have to drive here. It's especially nice when you don't have a car," he said.
Lacon said he also likes the residence. "My room is very clean and very big, bigger than I'm used to," he said.
The fourth student resident, Daniel P. Stoltzfus, 19, of Saugerties, a small town south of Albany, said, "My room is nice. Space is definitely not an issue. . . . North Tonawanda seems like a nice town. The vibe I get is it's less like an urban version of Kingston, which is a city near my home."
Stoltzfus said he's majoring in math and possibly in some business field or computer science.
North Tonawanda's Thomas H. Hardy, 21, a transfer student from Niagara County Community College, lives at home but was accepted to the Gersh Academy on a full scholarship worth about $20,000.
An undeclared major, Hardy says he's taking courses such as art history and critical thinking and may end up majoring in graphic arts.
So far, he said, he likes what he has seen and doesn't mind being in North Tonawanda because he prefers the four seasons and the area's cooler temperatures.
Hardy said he likes the atmosphere at Daemen and Gersh because "there are not as many students like in bigger colleges, so I think you'll get more one-on-one interaction with the professors. I don't think we're going to see 300 people in a room."
Since each student has to travel from North Tonawanda to Daemen and back daily, Gersh said, the academy has obtained a van to transport them. He said his academy director, Mary Lawler, the former special-education director for the North Tonawanda School District, is temporarily doing the driving and supervising the students.
That will change when the academy takes over the Lowry building and the size of the program grows, Lawler said.
If there was any skepticism voiced by the students it came from Heathcote, who said she was not so sure that the famous pizza of this area can match the pizza sold in New York City. She said she plans to find out.
"These students are all very smart," Gersh said. "We've given each of them between a $5,000 and $7,000 scholarship." He said the cost to attend the Gersh Experience at Daemen College is $27,000.
Meanwhile, he said academy officials will be in State Supreme Court in Niagara Falls on Feb. 1 to try to stop the School Board from declaring his contract to buy the building in default and put it back on the market.
The board is concerned because Gersh has yet to pay for the building and take it over.
He would like to do that immediately, but several legal matters have to be resolved, Gersh said.
"Unfortunately, there are certain things that have to be done in a certain fashion that's conducive to financing," he said.
He noted KeyBank is willing to give him the financing, but to do that it requires a Level 2 asbestos environmental study to make sure there is no asbestos in the building.
In addition, Gersh has to have a survey of the property and an appraisal done. Soil samples are also needed, Gersh said, as the school district removed an old oil tank from the property in 1974, but there is no documentation.
"All these things have delayed the closing," Gersh said. "We've just needed time to jump through all these hoops."
Gersh agreed to buy the school for $700,000.
He said he plans to purchase Lowry and wants to be a member of the North Tonawanda community soon. He would not have spent about $30,000 on a student residence just two blocks from Lowry if he wasn't serious about locating his academy there, Gersh said.
Gersh, 38, is the administrator of Montessori schools on Long Island.