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Project for Lockport High goes to voters $29.5 million in capital improvements authorized by board, awaiting final approval in referendum

The fate of the proposed $29.5 million capital improvement for Lockport High School was handed over to school district voters Wednesday night.

After about a year of planning and discussion and another 2 1/2 -hour session on the subject Wednesday, the School Board voted, 8-1, to go ahead with the project and scheduled a referendum for Dec. 16.

The board divided the project into two resolutions that district residents can vote on separately.

The first calls for spending $23.5 million on what district officials refer to as needed repairs, improvements and additions to the high school.

The second calls for spending $6 million on improvements to the athletic facilities behind the high school. The work includes construction of a new football stadium featuring a synthetic turf playing field and bleachers with a seating capacity of 2,500.

Voting will take place from noon to 9 p.m. Dec. 16 at polling locations residents use during the annual School Board elections.

Jeffrey Stone, the district's bond counsel, said the vote is set up so that work on the athletic facilities cannot take place -- even with voter approval -- unless the needed renovations to the high school building are approved. However, if approved, the renovations can take place even if voters defeat the second resolution.

Project approval came in spite of objections from three residents who believe that the work would end up costing taxpayers more money at a time when the economy is in a serious downturn.

Allan W. Jack, the only board member to vote no, said he liked the project but felt it imprudent to move ahead when the economic future of the state and country is in doubt.

Assistant Superintendent of Finance Deborah A. Coder said there was little reason to fear that local taxpayers would suffer, because financial experts said the board has enough money with more than $3 million in capital reserve funds and $544,000 in state money to cover the project's upfront costs.

She said the state would cover the rest of the money borrowed to finance the project through state building-reimbursement funds, which would gradually take care of 89 percent of the costs over a 15-year payback period.

While the State Legislature could decide to change the financing formula and throw heavy costs back on the taxpayer, Stone said, he doubted that would happen, especially since the district would already be locked into the state's current reimbursement system for capital projects.

Coder said that if something like that occurred, the board would still have about 18 months before it will be able to bid out the work and can stop the project if it feels uncomfortable with the economic climate even though voters approved the work. She doesn't expect the state Education Department to review and approve the project until at least next summer and for work to begin until the summer of 2010.

Board member Thomas W. Fiegl said the board should take advantage of the money now available for the work. He said the board does not want to be doing patchwork repair and replacement projects in the old school. He said emergency projects such as that would come out of the district's general budget and be directly paid for by property owners, whereas all the school's ills can be addressed with one inclusive project that mostly will be covered by state funds.

If the board waits, Fiegl said, that money may not be available in the future, since the state is facing deficits and Gov. David A. Paterson is looking for ways to cut $2 billion from the current budget.

Stone said that it's unlikely the governor would touch building-reimbursement funds because they are paid out over 15 years and would not represent much of a savings in this year's state budget.

Fiegl cited the current roof-replacement project over the high school's pool as an example where the district has had to take money out of the general fund to cover the close to $1 million in work.


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