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PROPOSAL FOR NEW HIGH SCHOOL ATTRACTS A VOCAL FEW

Two adjectives can be used to describe the participants in the Orchard Park School District's discussion groups regarding its proposed new high school: "few" and "outspoken."

Representatives of Syntax Communications estimated the number of people commenting on the $90 million project at well under 100 as the groups wrapped up Tuesday, a number that left organizers perplexed.

"Given the size, a well-informed, well-educated populace and the significant dollars being proposed, you would usually draw more participants," said Kit Dunn of Syntax, the group facilitating the discussions.

"We're very surprised that there wasn't greater participation," said Orchard Park's school information officer, Jane Burzynski, who said that some of the 18 scheduled groups had been combined because of low number of sign-ups.

Syntax will present its findings to the School Board during a special meeting Monday night at 7 in the Baker Road administration building.

The meetings were part of the preparation for a fall vote on the building project. In addition to building a high school on the Murphy Road site purchased from the Sisters of Mercy, the plan would include converting the current high school into a second middle school and reducing the district's four elementary schools to kindergarten through fourth grade, instead of through fifth grade.

Those who did attend found themselves engaged in an information interchange, Dunn said.

"A lot of people were coming into the other groups to listen to what other people had to say, not just to hammer home their own points," Dunn said. "It was not a scientific random sampling, but we think we've gotten a food feel for the sentiment of the public."

The discussion group meeting Tuesday morning at the former convent on Murphy Road served as a microcosm in that regard, with five participants, including three senior citizens and two parents of school-age or preschool-age children. Of the senior citizens, two were former Orchard Park teachers, while another's husband is a retired Buffalo teacher.

The group met with no district officials present, and because their comments to the Syntax facilitators were to be kept anonymous to the School Board, members asked that they not be quoted by name.

The cost was a major factor, according to some. One parent, who said she had been involved with district committees, said she felt "a little ambushed" when the price tag was revealed last month. Earlier estimates had been $76 million for the entire project.

"You think you know what's going on, then . . . wow!" she said. "And the School Board did sit there and say, 'It's going to be a land bank, it's going to be a land bank,' and then as soon as (the referendum to buy property on Murphy Road) goes through, they want to put a high school there."

The same person acknowledged that she would rather see a high school on the property than a housing development, though, and said that she expected to vote yes on the referendum.

Other concerns included placing a new high school farther from the village, where students would be less able to walk, and putting fifth-graders into a middle school setting with pupils in sixth through eighth grades.

"Baker Road (on one side of the current high school) can be a little precarious," said one participant. "It seems the same is true here for people walking."

He also questioned the long-term need for a new school when the larger region is struggling economically and seeing an exodus of young adults.

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