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Thomas goes to voters to push bus purchase proposition

Asking voters for permission to buy new school buses is usually about as ho-hum for a school district as selling milk at lunchtime.

Unless you're in Orchard Park.

There, the superintendent is taking no chances. Joan D. Thomas has taken her show on the road, meeting with more than 500 people in about a dozen sessions -- the Lions Club, two senior citizen groups, the Orchard Park Business Association and a bunch of Parent-Teacher Organizations, to name a few.

And for those who didn't make one of the information sessions, the district has sent all its residents a color, four-page flier explaining the proposition. A reminder postcard about Tuesday's vote will land in mailboxes this week.

Why all the fuss?

This will be the first vote the district has planned, prepared and held since Thomas took the top job last May, after the School Board bought out Paul J. Grekalski's contract. Residents voted on a budget in May, but it was one prepared under Grekalski, not Thomas.

Many in the district say Tuesday's vote will be an indication of whether Thomas has been able to overcome the public distrust that came to a head during the "Taj Mahal" high school debate four years ago and resurfaced with the cell phone and credit card scandals surrounding Grekalski last year.

The community seemed to embrace Thomas, the longtime middle school principal, when she took over from Grekalski. She was a known quantity, someone people felt comfortable with. But the distrust still lingers.

"Everybody I talk with, you know what they say? You're a bunch of crooks," retiree Jimmy Coyle told Thomas at a public forum Tuesday.

Thomas' right-hand man, Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Petrus, said they both are making the most of the information sessions on the bus vote, which give them a chance to introduce themselves to the community.

"We're not looking at it as just this one proposition," Petrus said. "Joan and I are both new to the district. We want to get our name and faces out there. It might make people more comfortable when it comes to budget time or capital projects."

The district is asking for voter permission to use $250,000 from building renovation funds, $46,000 from a transportation fund and $150,000 from the general fund to buy seven buses. This will help Orchard Park get onto a regular replacement schedule, district officials say.

Thomas had been billing the bus purchase as something that would have "no impact on taxes" -- a line sprinkled liberally in the district's mailings. At a forum Tuesday, though, she qualified that.

She is not asking voters to add any new money to the budget, she said -- just to use existing money.

"I did say 'no tax impact.' Maybe that's the wrong thing to say," she said. "Could you use this money in these reserves to offset the next budget? Absolutely. Could we use this money in these reserves to make renovations at the high school? Absolutely."

The money, though, would be a drop in the bucket toward a capital project or a $64 million budget, she said. And if voters approve the bus purchase, the state will reimburse 60 percent of the cost.


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