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Hearing set on Olean school plans

Residents of the Olean City School District will provide input tonight on a proposal to renovate three of the city's elementary schools or build a new one, in preparation for closing a fourth school with the smallest enrollment.

The forum at 6:30 p.m. in Olean High School is the last in a series of neighborhood meetings and hearings to gauge public interest in the closing of Ivers J. Norton Elementary School on Henley Street. In February,the School Board received the recommendation of an Elementary Task Force to close Norton, which was built nearly a century ago, and continue with three buildings to serve pre-K through the fifth grade.

Last June, the district downsized elementary facilities with the closing of North Hill Elementary School. Officials say the next closing could save $400,000 and that money could become part of the district's share of a $40 million to $50 million capital project to build a replacement school -- or modernize the other three elementary schools and take care of some work needed in the high school.

District Superintendent Mark Ward said the closing may not be the perfect solution because the city would no longer have an elementary school in each of its four corners. But he pointed out the city's declining population and tax base, along with aging facilities and changes in neighborhoods as good reasons to push for change.

The presentation tonight will include an explanation of how the Norton closing is linked to a referendum this fall on the capital project, if the concept is adopted by the School Board in a vote next Tuesday night.

"Whether or not we actually close Ivers J. Norton, the key to whole thing will be the capital project," said Ward. "Whatever in the end we decide to do, we are exploring a stand-alone new school as well as taking a look at a Boardmanville Elementary School add-on or to tear down a portion of the older Ivers J. Norton and replace it with a newer school," which would require purchasing property adjacent to the school.

Another possibility is adding on to the Middle School on Wayne Street, but that would require tearing down a new athletic complex.

"The closing of Ivers J. Norton would be an insignificant action unless we can pass the capital project," said Ward.

The referendum would be held in October or November, and construction or renovations would take about three years. At the end of that time, Norton could be closed and its 250 pupils would be bused to other schools or a new facility.

Ward said 60 percent of those voting in a referendum, or a supermajority, must say yes to borrowing for a project of that size because the cost exceeds the district's debt limit.

Because Olean is a city school district, the debt limit is 5 percent of the district's true value, half that of centralized districts.

Ward said this is a good time for the project because the district is eligible for 92 percent building aid for renovations and improvements, in addition to $1.8 million in EXCEL aid, but the state will pay for only half of a new school if that course is chosen.

"We will meet with state officials in the state Education Department's Facilities and Planning Department to see if they will consider giving us the same aid for a new school. It's a better investment for them," said Ward.

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