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In an audit report presented at Thursday night's Tonawanda City School Board meeting, trustees were told that if the level of their surplus continues its fall the district will be in a crisis situation in two to three years.

Jonathan R. Andrews, an auditor for Fox and Co., said the district's undesignated surplus is just short of $8,000, as of June 30. The state allows districts to carry unallocated funds that do not exceed 2 percent of their budgets.

Andrews noted that 2 percent of Tonawanda's $21 million budget would be about $400,000. If the district cannot carry $400,000, the auditor said he believes $200,000 would be a safe amount. The undesignated surplus was $152,000 at the time of last year's audit.

Board Vice President Dennis Atkinson said the district's financial problems this year stem from its inability to get voters to approve a budget. The Tonawanda schools are currently operating on a contingency budget that includes an appropriated surplus of $500,000.

In other business, trustees spent more than an hour arguing over the best means of shortening their meetings. In the process, they defeated proposals to limit public comment, but voted, 4-3, for a measure that will limit the board meetings, including executive sessions, to four hours -- from 7 to 11 p.m.

Board member Pamela Peterman, who put forth the proposals, said a change in format is necessary because too many important matters are left until late in the evening when trustees cannot give them the attention they deserve. She noted that many other school boards have time limits and operating procedures.

"I see nothing wrong with letting the public know that they should get right to the point," said trustee Joseph Miosi, in a discussion of limiting public comment to three minutes per person. And Michael C. LaFever, director of curriculum and staff development, noted that the rule encourages impartiality.

But board member William Watson claimed the rule would "fly in the face of the First Amendment." He said the problem could be addressed by increasing the number of meetings per month.

Trustee Susan Gregg said that public comment isn't the cause of lengthy meetings, but a member of the audience disagreed.

She said that allowing speakers to go on at length had caused her to leave meetings at 10 p.m. "without ever hearing what I came for."

In another matter, the board was told it should scrap the current search for a new superintendent and restart the process. Chuck Heylmun suggested hiring an interim administrator or persuading Superintendent James C. Holler to delay his retirement, now planned for early 1998.

Heylmun, who is on the 23-member screening committee, said he is concerned that the process has not turned up the best possible applicants.

Because there are only 20 applicants for the post, Heylmun speculated that the district should have advertised a negotiable salary rather than one in the high eighties.

Board President Michele Benns said she "agreed 100 percent" with Heylmun's comments, but the discussion raised the ire of several screening committee members who were present at the board meeting. They said the committee meetings are supposed to be confidential.

Mrs. Benns suggested discussion of the matter be postponed until the board meets next week with Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of the Erie I Board of Cooperative Education Services. Ogilvie is in charge of the search.

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