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A new citizen organization in the Lancaster Central School District is worried that building Western New York's first school district-owned field house could saddle taxpayers with an added burden for years to come.

Although a field house "is not a bad idea" and offers benefits, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, according to the Lancaster Parent Alliance. The group claims a membership of about 50 families in southern and eastern Lancaster where children were redistricted this year.

On Sept. 14, the School Board voted 5-2 to move toward construction of a 31,500-square-foot field house for an estimated $2.7 million in bond money approved by voters two years ago. The alternative was to build a 7,840-square-foot gymnasium addition for about the same cost, officials said.

School officials argue that a field house not only will meet district and community needs for many years, but that it offers a source of new revenue from outside groups using it.

On the other hand, for about the same money, a new gymnasium -- the third at the high school -- would be small as gyms go, and lack any seating, school officials point out.

However, not all school officials agree. School Board members William Janiga and Georgette Pelletterie voted against the field house project, citing uncertainty over construction and future operation, maintenance and equipment costs.

According to the alliance, there are "too many unanswered questions, too many variables" associated with initial and future costs of the field house. "As taxpayers of this town, we have not been assured by the board that this facility will not become a tax burden," the group declared.

The district estimates the tab for field-house equipment, operation and maintenance will run about $120,000 a year, compared with about $82,000 for the much smaller gym. Utility and insurance costs make the larger building more expensive.

"For $40,000 more a year, we get a facility that's four times the size of the gym, plus the potential for earning back some of the expenditure. That's a no-brainer to me," School Superintendent Joseph L. Girardi said Thursday.

But the alliance said some taxpayers are confused about the 1996 bond vote. "The proposition stated that equipment and site work be included within the maximum costs for projects. As the field house project unfolds, we do not see this happening."

However, because the field house apparently will be built, the organization said it recommends:

Forming a partnership with the Town of Lancaster, which the group believes will be the second-most frequent user of the facility.

Lancaster Supervisor Robert H. Giza said the town could help save money on the project by using town equipment and manpower to put in a driveway and parking lot. However, the town would still have to bill the school district for the town's costs, he stressed.

An outright financial contribution by the town to the school district for the field house project would probably be illegal, Giza noted.

Establishing fees for the use of the field house to help recover the costs of operating it.

Remaining focused on important issues, such as the potential for school overcrowding in coming years. "Do not be tempted to direct all our resources and efforts toward a field house that will bring much attention to our district, yet add little educational value . . . in the overall picture. We implore the Board of Education to remember that Lancaster schools are in the business of education, first and foremost," the parent group said.

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