Our View | Voters soon get say in State High project

January 11, 2014 

In just four months, residents of the State College Area School District will vote on a proposed high school project.

District officials are moving into the home stretch of their outreach to taxpayers in an attempt to maximize support for the concept, and the $85 million tax bill that would come with it.

We continue to believe that the high school project is necessary for the education and welfare of the young people of the Centre Region. The district has until May 20 to convince 51 percent of those who will go to the polls of that view.

District leaders met this week with the Centre Daily Times editorial board, and expressed confidence that voters will approve the project. School board Vice President Amber Concepcion pointed to the level of support for a new State High on recent community surveys: 91 percent.

“The people who respond to surveys tend to vote, and people who vote tend to get involved in surveys,” Concepcion said.

Act 1 forces school districts to take spending increases above the annual cost-of-living level to the voters to protect property owners from unwarranted large jumps in their bills. Since the state legislature launched this process in 2006, only one Pennsylvania school district has emerged from the referendum process with voters approving a project.

State College pulled the plug on a proposed high school renovation effort in 2007 because of a negative reaction from the community. Upper Dublin School District in Montgomery County saw its building project approved by voters there that same year.

The State College district has taken the right approach this time around, opening its doors and processes to the public and providing informational updates on its website. You can go to www.scasd.org, click on “State High Project Website” and then “Tax Calculator,” and estimate what the project might cost you based on the assessed value of your property.

District leaders plan to expand their outreach in the months before Election Day, visiting area senior housing centers and community groups, meeting people “on their turf and terms,” Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said.

Here are some points we hope district residents take note of during the process:

•  The State College district has taken steps to control the burden on taxpayers.

The board approved a cap of $85 million for the referendum. The remainder of the $115 million maximum for the high school project would be met through capital reserves, refinancing of debt service or private donations.

In 2007, the district had a $102 million spending plan and asked residents to cover the full cost.

“We aren’t asking the taxpayers to foot the full bill of the project,” district business administrator Randy Brown said. “We will be reallocating resources and rededicating current revenue.”

•  The State High concept would provide a safer campus on Westerly Parkway.

Officials said the project’s plans call for the shifting of traffic patterns to reduce congestion on that busy local street.

Additionally, moving most classes to the south side will greatly reduce the number of students crossing the street each day. Currently, classes are split between the North and South buildings.

The new campus would have fewer exterior doors. There are now more than 90, said Ed Poprik, director of physical plant — which make it difficult to manage safety and control access.

“Three-quarters of our kids cross the street for at least one class,” high school Principal Scott DeShong said. “We have significant foot traffic every 47 minutes.”

O’Donnell added: “If you come by our building in the evening, it’s like the New York City of our district. There’s something going on all the time.”

•  The district included teachers and parents in its planning to help assure that the new high school brought greatly enhanced learning opportunities.

The district’s plans call for grouping of classrooms in learning pods and a “9th Grade Experience” to ease the transition to high school.

In addition, officials said the current high school’s libraries are small and outdated and the auditorium is not sufficient for the needs of the performing arts program.

A cafeteria designed decades ago forces some students to eat lunch in hallways or outside.

“The educational plan has become the most involved part of the effort, although it’s not gotten a lot of light shed on it,” O’Donnell said.

•  The current high school would need significant work regardless.

One option the district considered would have involved extensive renovations without a new high school.

That price tag would have been $70 million.

The buildings are cold in the winter and hot in the fall and spring. Poprik pointed to areas such as lighting, plumbing, heating and disabilities compatibility that would be addressed by the project.

And he said the buildings, built half a century ago, have outdated learning areas in need of a technology upgrade.

“When these things were built,” Poprik said, “the most technology-sensitive thing a teacher had to do was plug in a film projector.”

“Our facilities are becoming obsolete,” board President Penni Fishbaine said. “They’re failing.”

Much work remains on the communication front, and the trick might be convincing voters who are retired or who don’t have children in the district that the project is sound and will make for a better community in the years ahead.

We believe the district has a compelling story to tell, and we urge residents to take time to listen and ask questions in the months before the critical vote. Then we’ll see what happens.

O’Donnell said he is often asked, “Why now?” He responds that interest rates are favorable, the bidding environment is competitive and the current high school is not meeting the community’s needs.

“Our mission isn’t only to lay blocks,” he said. “It’s the kids.”

DeShong said: “One way or another, we’re going to tear these buildings apart in the very near future.”

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