Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq came to State College on Tuesday to hand out awards, but she took a break to talk about a variety of education issues, including many with specific interest to Centre County.
Dumaresq sat down with the Centre Daily Times editorial board with a folder of information on Gov. Tom Corbett’s Ready to Learn agenda and proposed 2014-15 education budget. Most was not new information, but it did give the secretary a chance to show her passion for the subject.
Dumaresq, originally a math teacher and later a school superintendent, was the deputy secretary for K-12 before she moved into the top spot in September. It is still the area she feels most comfortable.
She visited State College Area High School on Tuesday to give out accolades for being the highest-performing district on state assessments in the county. When she walked in with rolled up banners, though, she came face to face with the issue on everyone’s mind.
“The kids all thought they were blueprints for the new high school,” she said. “I forgot where I was.”
Dumaresq said she’s been “watching the journey” as State College parents and taxpayers debate rehabilitating the existing facilities against building new, and they now face a referendum on funding a construction project.
The district is looking to pass the $85 million referendum to help support its $115 million project to add heavy renovations and new construction to its high school on Westerly Parkway. The May 20 referendum needs a simple majority to pass.
Dumaresq won’t say where she falls on the question.
“I’d never substitute my judgment,” she said, though she did add, “It’s important for children to be in a safe and healthy building.”
Decisions on buildings such as State High and the 16-year journey from the first proposal for a Philipsburg-Osceola Area Middle School to its opening last August often are made with an eye to funding, both with local tax money and reimbursements from the state. Securing state money means tracing the labyrinth of the planning and construction — or plancon — process, where districts take a step, submit plans to the state, wait for a state response, and move on to the next level, eventually reaching the construction phase and, hopefully, repayment of a portion of the cost.
Right now, there is a moratorium on new projects entering the plancon process, Dumaresq said. Some of the $1.2 billion in backlogged projects are trickling through for payment, but she would like to see the whole process changed. Ideally, she would like to see districts simply provided with some level of designated funding that they can use for whatever capital projects they choose, relying only on local planning and code for approval.
It isn’t the only time she suggested leaving things up to the people.
“I support choice,” she said when asked about charter and cybercharter schools. Local districts have been critical of the impact the alternate brand of public education has on their bottom line, and a perceived different standard when it comes to how schools are assessed.
Dumaresq says she has no qualms about pulling the charter of an underperforming school, either electronic or brick-and-mortar.
“They have to perform,” she said. “It’s about the quality of education.”
She sidestepped the idea that her visit was about stumping for the governor during an election year when he is touting education.
“I have been doing this for 45 years under Republican and Democratic administrations,” she said. “It’s for the children, regardless of the governor.”