State College Area School District leaders await voters’ decision

crosenblum@centredaily.comMay 19, 2014 

— Mark Higgins urged his fellow parents, as well as any grandparents in the community, to be good role models Tuesday.

Higgins, a State College parent of two, supports the State High project, a proposed State College Area High School campus built from new construction and renovation of the existing two buildings on Westerly Parkway.

He’ll vote in favor of authorizing the State College Area School District board to borrow $85 million to finance the $115 million project — the referendum question on primary election ballots for registered voters, including independents, in the district.

Higgins, whose son and eldest child is a junior at State High, spoke Monday at the school board meeting, urging people in favor of the project to take the time to vote.

“You’re going to set an example for your children and your grandchildren,” Higgins said, making the only public comments.

“You can show up and vote and be a good example. You can not vote. Well, that would be a different example.”

On the eve of the election, board members on Monday wrapped up two years of dialogue with the community about the project, thanking residents for their input and volunteers for their service.

In addition to conducting a survey that eventually narrowed down building options to one choice, the board held dozens of public meetings. Members spoke to civic groups and stumped door to door for the project.

Board members and district officials said the current North and South buildings are inadequate, failing and unsafe, because students cross Westerly to get to classes and increase security risks by using multiple doors.

A school with modern classrooms, heating systems and electrical wiring also would enhance the students’ educational experience, district officials said.

Opponents have decried what they see as excessive spending and a burden on taxpayers. Some think the district should renovate the current buildings at a lower cost.

With estimated interest rates of 5.3 percent on the referendum debt and other borrowing, the district places the total bill for the project at $221 million.

Reilly Ebbs, State High student government president, told board members that the new school would some day benefit the community and students, including her younger sister, now in third grade.

“It’s definitely going to have a huge impact on this community,” Ebbs said.

Before the regular meeting, board members and Superintendent Bob O’Donnell held a short news conference about the State High project and referendum.

“After weighing community input, after a two-year process, with over 150 public meetings and approximately 7,000 randomly selected residents that were surveyed, the State College school board is proposing a long-term and fiscally responsible project which we believe is the community consensus,” board President Penni Fishbaine said.

If the referendum passes, the board will complete the design, start taking bids early in 2015 and begin an estimated 30 months of construction a year from now.

If the referendum fails, O’Donnell said, the district would review exit poll information and decide its next step. According to the district, the current school needs $70 million in renovations just to be functional.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Fishbaine said. “We just want to make sure all voters get out and vote.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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