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SCHOOL FIELD HOUSE PROJECT FACES CHALLENGE FROM TAXPAYERS

A Lancaster taxpayer activist has mounted a legal challenge to plans to build a large field house instead of a small gymnasium at Lancaster High School, contending that school officials are playing games with the wording of a $33.2 million bond issue passed two years ago.

Jack Beilman, president of the Lancaster Taxpayers Association, said the proposition approved by voters called for $15.4 million to "partially reconstruct and construct additions and improvements to various district buildings."

"A knowledgeable and competent person would not use these words to intend the construction of a very large (by any standards) freestanding structure," Beilman wrote in legal papers served on the school district Monday.

Voters were led to believe that with part of the $15.4 million, a small gymnasium would be added to the high school, Beilman said. "I submit the voters would not have approved the 1996 bond proposition had it projected a $2.7 million field house," he wrote in his petition to the state Education Commissioner.

School Superintendent Joseph L. Girardi declined comment Tuesday on the action. He said it was turned over to Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear for a response within 20 days.

Beilman filed the action on behalf of the taxpayers' group.

School officials have said the 31,500-square-foot field house would not be a "freestanding" structure but would be connected to the high school.

They also have said that depending on bid amounts, the $2.7 million budget might not cover the cost of site work, or all equipment and furnishings. However, the site work is not essential to the project, said School Board President Edward Carlsen.

But Beilman and the taxpayers' group argue in their petition that the $2.7 million must cover the entire cost of a project or be illegal under the proposition approved by voters.

"The clear wording of this bond proposition precludes any structure that does not 'include original furnishings, equipment, machinery, apparatus and all necessary alterations, site work and ancillary work required.' "

"Clearly, a fully equipped field house cannot be built for the same cost of a fully equipped gymnasium addition which is less than one-third the size of the field house," according to the petition.

Plans for the gym, the third at Lancaster High, called for less than 7,900 square feet and included no seating. But architects estimated gym construction costs at $120 per square foot, compared with as little as $50 per square foot for a field house.

School officials argue that in addition to meeting the School District's needs, a field house would have communitywide benefit as a venue for large events.

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