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Orchard Park Voters Decide Fate of Schools

Current Orchard Park High School

By Eileen Buckley

Orchard Park, NY – Voters in the Orchard Park Central School district are casting their ballot Tuesday on a controversial referendum for a proposed new high school. The district says a new school is needed to ease overcrowding. The opposition says it will cost taxpayers too much money.

Traveling along Route 240 in Orchard Park you will see signs both for and against the new school. But some residents and business owners did not want to reveal how they will vote today. In fact, one Orchard Park business owner says he fears he will lose current customers if he voices his views in public.

Residents will vote throughout the day on the proposal to build a new high school on Murphy Road. It would cost almost $90 million to construct. The Board of Education says it is the "key element" to the "Room to Learn Project." The plan calls for building a new high school, converting the current middle and high schools into two schools for grades 5 through 8 and re-configuring four elementary schools for grades K through 4.

President of the Board of Education Donald Pritchard says the schools are overcrowded. Pritchard says those opposing the plan have probably never stepped inside the schools.

"Unless you have children in the schools or people that you travel to the school for, there is probably no way that any one would realize that you have many, many students now in areas that are clogged and just really not a healthy situation," Pritchard said.

Pritchard says when the high school students change classes it creates a large crowd in the hallways. Pritchard says some have trouble getting from one end of the school to another in time for class and the school is simply too small.

"Those in the middle school -- it was really not adequately designed for these kids that are six-feet, six-feet-two, 180 to 220 pounds with back packs that nobody had five years ago," he said.

But some Orchard Park residents who oppose a new school say it's too expensive. The district says the project would hike school taxes by about 17 percent. Businessman Raymond Stromecki leads the "Sensible Taxpayers" group. He says some residents fear their taxes will escalate much higher than 17 percent over the next five years due to construction and other factors.

"They're saying 17 percent now, but from what our projections are, we don't know what the projected tax increases will be for May," Stromecki said. "We've asked several times, and we have not heard that. Last year, it was 7.6 percent. The teachers contract is up in 2003, so as close as we can project, our taxes will be increased by 35 percent in five years."

Stromecki says he has received hundreds of calls from young and old opposing the plan. He says senior citizens fear they will no longer be to afford to live in Orchard Park if school taxes are hiked. But Sromecki says even upper middle class residents have contacted him in opposition.

"If this referendum passes, they will not be able to afford to live in this town anymore," he argued. "And most of them feel, again, if this referendum does pass, they might as well surrender their checkbooks to the school board, because that's what it means."

School Board President Donald Pritchard says he is 71-years-old and especially sympathizes with the senior citizens. But on the other hand, Pritchard says he also has two teenage children attending high school.

"Unfortunately many of us, although I happen to have children in school at the present time, many of us feel that education was fine for us and for our kids," he said. "However, they don't understand the recent mandates from the State of New York. Many, many things from special education to the labs are now required."

The school district says funding the project will not be just a taxpayers' burden. Pritchard says they will seek state reimbursements that could pay up to 46 percent of the costs. But Pritchard says they have no guarantees when applying for the state funds.

Raymond Stromecki says they should not count on state aid, considering the state's lack of help for the struggling Buffalo School District.

"We can not see how the state, in its right mind, can give us $40 million to build this, which some people refer to as the Olympic village of Orchard Park, and they're not paying the city schools for basics," Stromecki said.

The school district says it will also seek private funding sources if the project is approved. Residents will be able to vote until 9:00 Tuesday night. School board president Pritchard says the final decision is "up to the people" of Orchard Park. [story tag] [At 5:33 AM - Voting begins at 7-this morning and will take place at the Orchard Park Middle School on South Lincoln Avenue] [After 7:00 AM - Voting is underway at the Orchard Park Middle School on South Lincoln Avenue.]