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Court will decide fate of Lowry School Board was prepared to cancel its sale

Whether or not the former Lowry Middle School is converted into a college-level school for students with neurobiological disorders is headed to court.

The Board of Education on Tuesday was prepared to vote on a measure declaring Kevin Gersh in default of his contract to buy the school for $700,000 when it was notified of a State Supreme Court order barring any action.

School Board attorney Bernard Freedman informed the board of the court stay during a nearly 45-minute executive session. Just prior to the meeting, Gersh attorney Dan Seaman of Lockport delivered papers, which school officials said stated that Gersh was nearing having the financing in place. He posted a $70,000 deposit when he signed a contract to buy the building.

The stay is to be heard Dec. 21.

School Superintendent Vincent Vecchiarella, who replaced the retiring John George in September, accused Gersh, 38, who runs Montessori schools on Long Island, of "not acting in good faith," noting it was October 2005 when he agreed to buy the Payne Avenue school. School district voters approved the sale, 868-760, on Dec. 9, 2005. The board's acceptance of Gersh's offer, the lowest of three bids, prompted controversy within the community. The other two offers -- for $725,000 and $775,000 -- were to convert the school into senior housing.

Freedman noted that the real estate closing was set for Dec. 8, but nothing happened.

Vecchiarella said that while usual practice is to not discuss pending litigation, he was concerned over "what the perception is."

"It's time to fish or cut bait," he said of the pending sale, adding that the district will not sublet the property to Gersh.

Reaching into a large cardboard box, Vecchiarella pulled out two briefcases. They were labeled "Deal #1," which he said represented the sale, and "Deal No. 2," offering Gersh "early occupancy" of the school, with him assuming all maintenance and utility costs pending completion of the sale.

Then Vecchiarella lifted out a large accordion folder labeled "No deal" and said, "I'm done talking. Gersh has not diligently fulfilled the agreement."

The superintendent also said he wants State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. of North Tonawanda to "recuse himself" from the case because he told Vecchiarella he voted in favor of the sale to Gersh.

As a stipulation of the sale, Gersh agreed to pay full taxes on the school for 15 years. At several points Tuesday, Vecchiarella and board members made it clear they want the building back on the tax rolls. Several board members also said they still hoped that the Gersh Academy becomes a reality, believing it is the best use of the former middle school and would be a plus for the community.

Board President Scott Schultz said, "We backed the academy because we believed it was the best use of Lowry . . . But we've been jerked around. It's time to do your duty or move on."

Gersh planned to open Gersh Academy, which was to be accredited through Daemen College in Snyder, in January with about 50 students.

Mary Lawler resigned her job as special-education director for the North Tonawanda School District in June to be director of the school.

Gersh also had said he would lease space in the three-story building to other organizations, including the city Parks, Recreation and Youth Department and the North Tonawanda History Musem.

email: lwinchester@buffnews.com

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