Under the surface: State College district leaders say expensive upgrades would be needed even if high school referendum fails

mmorgan@centredaily.comJanuary 25, 2014 

— State College Area School District officials say it’s a challenge to show why they are convinced that a new high school is needed when the current structures are in constant use.

The hallways may look a little worn here and there, but they are cleaned daily and frequently filled with students moving to and from classes.

The district has offered tours of the North and South buildings.

But the heart of the buildings — the areas people don’t see, including the mechanical and electrical infrastructure — is failing, Physical Plant Director Ed Poprik said.

If the State College high school project referendum fails in May, Poprik said, the district would still have to spend large sums of money to keep the high school campus functional.

“We’ll be investing tens of millions of dollars on things people don’t see just to keep the buildings up and running, and keep things heated,” he said.

The system of pipes that runs under the building was installed in 1955, and to replace them would require tearing up the floor. Now, to repair any problem pipes, maintenance workers have to shimmy through a crawl space with a flashlight.

Poprik said the district has replaced boilers and electrical transformers as necessary, but it would be expensive to solve problems such as the aging pipe system.

“It’s not like we’ve been asleep at the wheel saying, ‘Let’s let the building die,’ ” he said. “We’ve done the things we can do up to this point.”

Water in ‘the cave’

An ongoing problem is the flooding at the North Building, which takes in heavy volumes of water during some rainstorms, especially near the auditorium. An area under the stage that was once used as a dressing room for performers now has to be disinfected weekly to avoid a mold problem, Poprik said.

That space, known as “the cave,” has seen as much as 8 feet of water during some storms, he said.

Though the flooding issue gets a lot of attention because it is something people can see clearly, mechanical problems — much less visible — are a bigger concern, Poprik said.

The school board originally considered a high school project option to just renovate the existing buildings, making them look like new. But that option had a price tag of about $70 million.

The concept got 26 percent of the community support in a district survey, with 1,667 registered voters responding.

‘Not building facilities’

Poprik said the main drawback of the renovation option would have been that although the cost would be lower than the proposed $115 million maximum project that is being considered, the building would not positively affect academics.

The proposed project would locate all core classes on the south side of Westerly Parkway, and would introduce a new educational model. That system features small learning communities that increase possibilities for collaboration, focusing on relationships and keeping a high level of choice in the curriculum, Principal Scott DeShong has said.

The high school project’s four proposed learning areas are: community business and communications; health and human services; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and arts and humanities. A section of the school would be set aside for freshmen to get acclimated to the high school.

Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said that while updating the facilities is necessary, the educational model also needs an overhaul to keep with changes in learning worldwide.

“We’re not building facilities,” he said in a recent meeting with the Centre Daily Times. “We’re creating environments conducive to learning.”

If the referendum passes, it would mean a tax increase of about $190 yearly, on average, for district homeowners, Business Administrator Randy Brown has said. The referendum amount would be a separate line item from other district levies on tax bills.

‘Becoming obsolete’

Any increases would be phased in over an estimated three-year period of borrowing and then hold steady for the 30-year duration of the bond, officials said. Cost estimates are not final at this time because of unknown factors such as interest rates, but the entire project has been capped at $115 million and the referendum will not exceed $85 million.

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

The district must go to referendum because of the Act 1 index, which was passed in 2006 and limits yearly tax increases to an inflation-based figure determined by the state Department of Education.

District officials have not announced a contingency plan if the referendum doesn’t pass.

School board President Penni Fishbaine said if the referendum is defeated at the polls, the district would likely consider a reallocation of resources away from other capital projects to fund costly renovations to keep the buildings running.

“Our facilities are becoming obsolete,” she said. “They’re failing.”

Matt Morgan can be reached at 235-3928. Follow him on Twitter @MetroMattMorgan.

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