Our View | First construction project for State High: Build trust

September 18, 2013 

The State College Area School District has a final concept for its high school renovation project.

Voters will be asked in May to approve a tax increase to pay for a significant portion of the cost, tentatively set at $115 million.

Monday night, architectural design professionals were given the green light to begin developing specifics about the project, which would put most classes on the south side of Westerly Parkway instead of a split high school campus, as now exists.

District leaders say the new high school concept would enhance the educational experience for students and teachers, would be more efficient than the current setup, and would provide for increased security and overall safety.

But will voters agree? At this point, we hope so. But we’ll see.

Superintendent Bob O’Donnell and board officers Penni Fishbaine and Amber Conception met Monday with our editorial board, and said they know they have work to do in selling the idea to the residents, who will be asked to pay the bill.

Trust will be a factor when folks go into the polls in May to make a decision about the high school project.

O’Donnell sees three factors that will be central to whether residents ultimately support the high school proposal:

•  do they understand the needs that would be addressed?;

•  do they think the project is reasonable in terms of scope and cost?;

•  do they have faith in the school board and district for carrying out the plan?

“We’re asking them for their support, and their resources,” he said.

The district has done an admirable job of giving parents, students, faculty and the community at large opportunities to learn more about the effort and to provide feedback.

Several public forums were held through the process of winnowing the list of possible high school concepts to one. Tours of the existing high school buildings were offered. The district’s website, www.scasd . org, includes a link to information about the project with more opportunities for folks to speak out.

While the number of individuals who attended the forums and high school tours was encouraging, O’Donnell said, itstill represented a “small fraction of the community.”

If referendum does not pass, State College will have two options:

•  pause and try again with a second referendum, or …

•  look to the yearly budget to find money to upgrade the high school buildings.

Neither is preferable, Fishbaine said, because the current schools are outdated and in dire need of an upgrade. But to fund any work from within the existing budget would mean pulling money from other buildings.

O’Donnell said some of the district’s elementary buildings “are as bad as or worse than the high school.”

“We know we need a new high school,” Fishbaine said. “We know we need it today. We know we needed it yesterday.”

We like what we’re hearing about preliminary plans to create a modern learning environment at State High, from better technology to a design that groups students in “learning communities” to offset the move to a single, larger building.

District officials pledge to keep lines of communication open. Concepcion asked groups and organizations to consider inviting board members or school leaders to speak at their functions. That’s a great idea.

We urge residents of the districtto learn as much as possible about the current realities at the high school and to study closely the plans for a future high school as they are developed and communicated.

The journey is far from over, and the decision made in May will impact the quality of learning and life in the community for decades.

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