Ram Centre hangs over Penns Valley school board election

mcarroll@centredaily.comMay 18, 2013 

Sign1

A sign promoting Benfer, Brennan, Braucht, Ebeling and Gillan for school board stands along state Route 45 between the Penns Valley High School and Middle School.

ABBY DREY — CDT photo Buy Photo

— It’s been months since the Penns Valley school board ended one of the most controversial chapters in the district’s recent history.

But the specter of the Ram Community Centre, a plan now declared dead even by its most ardent former supporters, may be an elephant in the room in the upcoming primary election.

In recent interviews for an election preview featuring nine of the 10 candidates running for school board seats, only one spoke at length unprompted about the ill-fated plan for a public-private community center on school property. More, however, hinted at it in their answers.

When asked directly, almost all said the center was no longer an issue and that finding ways to improve education while being fiscally responsible was the real focus. But it would be hard to blame any for distancing themselves from the much maligned plan.

The board’s decision in July 2011 to allow for the construction of a community center on school property that would include a YMCA, medical offices and other space polarized the community.

For proponents, it was a way to bring additional assets to the district’s students, and to do so without burdening taxpayers thanks to the private partnerships.

Vocal opponents criticized the board almost immediately for alleged connections some had to the nonprofit group behind the center, and for what they called a lack of public awareness about the project. Others did not want private businesses, and the associated traffic, so close to the schools. Still more objected to the idea of moving medical offices from a longtime facility near the high school.

The board eventually scrapped the plan in May 2012, vowing to gain more public input. Opposition remained, however, and when the matter was again put on a school board agenda in October, the board voted not to proceed with the project.

While the Ram center group is still chasing its dream of building a community center in Penns Valley, its officials have said they no longer have any intention of that site being on school district property.

Board members, apparently, feel the same way.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see any private-public partnerships on school property,” said board Vice President Chris Houser, who had supported plans for the center. “I would not approve it.”

Other incumbents agreed with the position, saying the center is a dead issue and that its discussion is a distraction from the real issues in the election. The challengers, too, were more eager to talk about education and communication, something they said has been lacking.

David Braucht, who is challenging for a seat, said the community center issue was what drew him to school board meetings, but isn’t the reason he ultimately decided to run.

“It made me realize I wasn’t involved,” Braucht said.

Incumbent Amy Niewinski, who was appointed to the board in December to fill a vacancy and who is seeking re-election to her first full term, said she too was drawn to the panel in part by the community center debate.

But Niewinski was worried that the controversy would derail progress she believes the board and the district’s students and teachers had been making.

“I just wanted to be able to move on, heal and get past it,” she said.

That has proven difficult for some who believe the board became distracted with the community center at the expense of its true mission.

“The board has not concentrated on its main focus for two years,” said Garth Gillan, who is seeking his first election to the panel. “It’s been developing plans on school property. The board hasn’t been concerned with education for as long as its energies were on the Ram Centre.”

Incumbent Troy Ott, appointed to the board last year and seeking re-election, said the panel’s track record speaks for itself — the district’s students test in the top 8 percent in the state and in the top 3 percent specifically at the high school, while Penns Valley’s tax rate is the second lowest in the county.

“(Ram center opponents) are playing out exactly what they said they were going to do,” said Ott, who supported the community center plan. “Stop and punish the people who supported it. From my perspective this is a dead issue.”

But as the election nears Tuesday, a rift that some believe has its roots in the community center debate apparently remains.

“That really tore a huge ravine through this community,” said Victoria Brennan, who is running for her first seat on the board. “I do think it’s an issue (for some in the community). Certain things just haven’t been put to rest.”

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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