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NIAGARA FALLS - Voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition Tuesday to borrow up to $67 million to renovate or enlarge the city's public school buildings and install artificial turf on the major athletic fields.
With 22 of 24 districts reporting by 10 p.m., the measure was passing by a margin of 87 percent to 13 percent.
The vote tabulation stood at 2,818 in favor, and 377 opposed. School District Clerk Ruthel D. Dumas said 25,904 city residents were eligible to vote.
The results are unofficial until the School Board meets at 8 p.m. today in the Administration Building, 630 66th St., to declare them official. The board's regular agenda review and official voting meetings also are scheduled, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
"I'm very grateful to the community for understanding the benefits of this program to our students, the district and the entire community," Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco said. "We will keep our pledge to the taxpayers. We'll do our part to make each school campus a vital learning center."
The school improvement program, called "Inventing Tomorrow," will not increase school taxes for local property owners because the entire borrowing - including interest - will be paid with various state funds.
Some of the state money comes through regular financial aid from the state Education Department; some comes through a special program for school districts that have high rates of poverty, like Niagara Falls; some comes through a state program called Expanding Children's Education and Learning, or EXCEL, which already has been allocated to Niagara Falls, and some comes through Greenway funds provided by the New York Power Authority as part of its relicensing agreement for the Niagara Power Project.
The state money for those program comes from a variety of sources, including state income taxes, sales taxes, fees, aid from the federal government, and others.
Improvements to the athletic fields are not eligible for aid from the Education Department, but will be paid for with Greenway funds. "Should we fail to obtain Greenway funding, we simply won't do the fields," Bianco said.
The proposition is a scaled-down version of a similar borrowing proposal that was turned down by voters last year. That proposition would have permitted the school district to borrow up to $130 million, which also would have been paid back by the state and would not have affected the local school property tax rate.
Judie Gregory-Glaser, public relations director for the school district, said more than 50 other communities in New York State voted last year to approve a total of $398 million in capital improvement projects to be mostly - or fully - paid for by the state. "Only Niagara Falls failed to approve a capital projects referendum," she said.
School board member Don J. King said, "I don't understand how anyone could vote against a referendum like this that doesn't cost them anything" in local school taxes. He is the longest-serving member of the board, with more than 30 years' service.
Among the most visible projects included in Tuesday's referendum is the installation of artificial turf on athletic fields at LaSalle Preparatory School, Niagara Falls High School and Nicoletti Field, assuming that the Greenway funds become available as is expected.
"Artificial turf is safer, cheaper and easier to maintain than natural turf," School Board President Carmelette Rotella said. "You can see for yourself at Lewiston-Porter or Hamburg high schools."
Among other projects to be funded by the bond issue are visitor entry systems, wireless networking, communication systems, security systems and science laboratories at most schools, and heating, plumbing and foundation repairs at various school buildings, as needed.
The work also will make buildings accessible to the handicapped, as is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
School Business Administrator Timothy Hyland said the district might not borrow the entire amount authorized in the referendum. "We will use just the amount that we need," depending on how the construction bids come in, he said.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com