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A Lancaster Central School District surplus fund that fell to a mere $23,000 in 1997 had rebounded to more than $800,000 by the time the district closed its books last June, an outside auditor told the School Board Monday night.

Wayne Drescher, a senior manager with Deloitte & Touche, the district's auditing firm, said "really stringent spending" helped replenish the district's "undesignated fund balance," a surplus not reserved for specific expenditures.

With a critically depleted surplus of just $23,000 at the end of June 1997, Deloitte & Touche a year ago warned the district that it had to be especially tight-fisted.

"You needed to be that way, and I think you followed through," Drescher told the board. The current year-end surplus of $800,204 compares with a state-recommended ceiling of about $960,000, he said.

"This is by no means a rosy picture, but it is an improvement over the previous year," Drescher said.

In a related matter, School Board President Edward Carlsen predicted tax relief next year. "I think our (next) budget will be zero increase, or better," he told the audience. A tax break "seems to be this board's primary goal," Carlsen said.

Lancaster's long-term bonded indebtedness shot up to $35.9 million this year, thanks to a $33 million bond issue approved two years ago that included a new school that opened this month.

Drescher reviewed last year's expenditures, including $26 million for instruction, including teacher salaries; $6.7 million for employee benefits; $5.6 million for general administrative costs; $3.6 million for debt payments, and $2.9 million for pupil transportation.

Property taxes, $23.2 million; state aid, $16.9 million, and $3.1 million in sales tax topped the list of school district revenues, the auditor reported.

Deloitte & Touche said more attention should be paid to the impact of the year 2000 on the school district's computerized operations and information systems. Officials "should recognize the potential seriousness of the year 2000 issue," the firm advised.

The firm also recommended a district-wide physical inventory and suggested potential savings involving labor unions and health coverage.

On other subjects, Debbie Simme of Riemers Avenue ripped School Superintendent Joseph L. Girardi over the 7:30 a.m. starting time at the new William Street School. She said it makes 10- and 11-year-olds get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and that she knows of one child who spends one hour and 20 minutes on the bus.

"I find this crazy. I will fight so that no child has to get up at this ungodly hour," she told the board.

But Trustee Lorraine Bono recalled that Girardi reluctantly submitted the 7:30 a.m. starting time to the board only after it was recommended by a special committee that included parents. Because of bus limitations, one alternative had been 9:45 a.m., but parents were opposed to the children traveling home in the late-afternoon rush hour, she said.

"Dr. Girardi said he didn't think it was advisable for pupils that young to get up that early, but he went along with it because it came from the committee and that's what the community wanted," Ms. Bono said.

"We're wrong when we don't follow the public's wishes, and we're wrong when we do follow them," she said.

Richard Foley of Deerpath Drive, a member of the start-time committee, said he didn't know what he would have recommended had he known any pupil would spend 80 minutes on the bus. "What's done is done; now we need to look what's to be done next year," Foley told the board.

Several residents spoke on plans to build a $2.7 million field house, rather than a conventional gymnasium, at Lancaster High School.

Debbie Nemetti of Hemlock Lane suggested the district see what it can learn about operation and maintenance costs from the North Amherst Recreation Center, a similarly-sized field house-type building that Amherst rents out for a variety of community and school sports.

Brian Freier of William Street said Lancaster should look into having a private developer build and operate the field house, with the district leasing it for its activities during the day.

High school physical education teacher and coach Kevin Carriero praised the board for having the "courage" to undertake an innovative project that he said will benefit the school district and community for many years to come.

Educators strive to produce "well-rounded individuals," and physical education is an important part of the educational process, Carriero said. "Ninety-five percent of Fortune 500 executives participated in athletics," he said.

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