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More than 50 Grand Island residents met Sunday afternoon in the Town Hall to organize opposition to their school district's proposed multimillion-dollar building program.

The Grand Island School Board will discuss enrollment figures when it meets at 7:30 p.m. today in the middle school, but it is not expected to take up a formal proposal for a referendum on a bond issue until the Jan. 7 meeting.

"We support quality education but oppose wasteful construction that will unnecessarily raise property taxes," said Richard Vanthoff, who presided at the meeting with Norman Bauman. "The School Board justifies this exorbitant construction package by claiming that New York State will pay 62 percent of the costs. Does the School Board realize that Grand Island residents also pay New York State taxes?"

Many residents expressed concern over the wording of the referendum. Voters who favor new construction will be given a choice between building an entirely new structure or reopening the Sidway building with a new addition.

"By making Sidway an option on the ballot, the School Board will split the opposition vote, because some people who do not want a new school will vote to reopen Sidway," Vanthoff warned. "Unfortunately, a vote for Sidway is a vote for the entire bond issue. The only reasonable choice is to vote no and defeat the entire bond issue."

Vanthoff also said the School Board has set aside $35,000 to hire a public relations consultant to promote the bond issue.

Grand Island School Superintendent Lee J. Cravotta today called Vanthoff's statement "absolutely untrue, bogus, not even laughable." He said the district is sharing a public relations consultant with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in the City of Tonawanda, "with our share coming to about $7,000."

He called Vanthoff's assertion "biased and incorrect. He (Vanthoff) didn't even have the courtesy to ask us if we had done such a thing," Cravotta said.

The district's shared public relations consultant is not promoting the bond issue in any way, Cravotta added. "That is not his job. It's my job -- and the Board of Education's," he said.

At Sunday's meeting, Joseph Steffan said, "New construction on the island has increased the town's real estate tax base by 47 percent in the last three years, but we're seeing a 30 percent increase in taxes. Things seem to be out of hand completely."

Asked by resident Bruce Johnson what impact the River Oaks development would have on the school district, Town Councilman James R. Sharpe said a state study revealed that Grand Island already has more than enough capacity to handle the new children.

Sharpe said the state found that Huth Road Elementary School has a capacity of 1,200 pupils (656 now enrolled); Kaegebein Elementary, 840 (605 now); the Middle School, 1,050 (687 now); the High School, 1,594 (941 now) and Sidway Elementary School, 525 (now empty).

"The School Board challenges the state numbers," he added.

Eileen Torrance, who is on the 32-member community committee reviewing new construction, said she is concerned about rising school taxes.

"Our taxes have been increasing an average of $1.81 (per $1,000 of assessed valuation) these last two years for transportation and teachers and books," she said. "If we vote in this referendum, those other costs are still going to be there. I intend to vote against the referendum."

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