If State College Area School District soon has the funding for a new high school, it will have done something only one district ever has in Pennsylvania — convinced voters to pass a referendum.
Since Act 1 was adopted by the legislature in 2006 — limiting yearly school tax increases to a state-determined, inflation-based number — 16 schools have gone to referendum for projects and only Upper Dublin School District was successful, information from Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials shows.
Others have come close to passing, but the majority were voted down convincingly. At least nine resulted in more than 70 percent of votes against, with one failing 90 percent to 10 percent.
The low success rate has made the referendum process a daunting task for school districts, PASBO Executive Director Jay Himes said. Many districts have just decided the process isn’t worth the time and effort, given the long odds of approval.
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“I think fundamentally, what has fueled the lack of interest and appetite among school districts is it’s simply seen as a losing proposition,” he said.
With many voters turned off by the added expense, Himes said, the biggest task is communicating the perceived need for the proposed project.
State College school district voters will head to the polls May 20 to decide whether to allow the district to incur $85 million in debt — about a $190 tax increase annually for the average homeowner — to renovate and add new construction to the high school South Building and likely make enhancements to the North Building.
Leaders at Crestwood School District, in Mountain Top, Luzerne County, thought they did everything right.
They worked hard and did their due diligence for a project that would have expanded the programs offered at the high school, Superintendent Dave McLaughlin-Smith said. The referendum would have allowed the district to offer a broader curriculum, adding courses and expanding options the district already had, he said.
Crestwood’s referendum failed at the polls, 85 percent against to 15 percent in favor.
“Not much more to tell, except it was a very expensive attempt to finance $52 million construction,” McLaughlin-Smith said by email.
He said the statistics indicated that parents who no longer had children in the district showed up in large numbers to vote against the referendum. The district has been able to maintain upkeep on the building and neutralize crowding issues, but it wasn’t able to expand its curriculum or activities, he said.
Unionville-Chadds Ford School District — in Kennett Square, with students in Chester and Delaware counties — tried and failed twice to pass a referendum for a new high school.
School board member Keith Knauss said he thought lavish high school plans were excessive so he fought against them, rallying the community to vote down both referendums.
Knauss said he and fellow district resident Jeff Hellrung solicited donations, sent out mailers, constructed a website, spoke at school board meetings and private gatherings, put out signs and sat at the polls.
The first referendum, for $62.5 million, in November 2007 failed 60 percent to 40 percent. The second attempt, for $30 million, failed 54 percent to 46 percent the next spring.
Both men successfully ran for the Chadds-Ford school board after the referendums failed, and they both still sit on it.
The previous attempt
The current high school project isn’t State College’s first attempt the renovate its deteriorating buildings.
Between 2005 and 2007, the district spent about $5 million designing a new high school but discarded the plan before it reached referendum. The so-called mega-school was much maligned by a large contingent of the community before the board unanimously voted to nix it.
The project came in about $17 million over budget, and five school board challengers swept four incumbents off the ballot entirely in the May 2007 primary election.
“Following the results of the election, I think it’s pretty clear that, in my mind, to move forward with this project would really tear at the fabric of our community in a way that I simply can’t support,” board member Gowen Roper said at the meeting when the project was scrapped, CDT archives show.
This time, Superintendent Bob O’Donnell is striving for a different result.
He said the district and the board are working together, taking all the suggestions from the community and putting together a project that he hopes voters will support.
In a 2013 survey designed to reach a representation of the community, the overwhelming majority of people who responded said something needs to be done with the high school, and a solid majority indicated they would support the project.
This one high school attempt came in on budget and carries a referendum number that is less than the cost of the $115 million project.
The board decided to set the total referendum at $85 million, vowing to fund the $30 million remainder with capital campaigns and borrowing. The project would locate all core classes on the south side of Westerly Parkway and allow for a revamped educational model that the administration believes will be a huge plus for students.
O’Donnell is convinced that it all adds up to a project that will get the green light from voters.
“I hope that the community isn’t forced to go back to the drawing board on this process,” he said.
The winning formula
The key to passing a referendum is posing a united front and rallying the community for support, according to the superintendent of the only successful district.
Michael Pladus believes Upper Dublin was successful because the 2007 project occurred before the economic downturn, the district presented the best possible building plan and the community cares deeply about education.
Upper Dublin voters passed a $119 million referendum — the largest ever attempted in the commonwealth — with 62 percent in favor. The new high school carried a 16 percent tax increase.
He said some keys for other districts are to bring forth the right project, be as honest and upfront about all the details as possible, and hope the community comes out in support.
Pladus said the biggest factor is uniting all who have a stake in the outcome — from the board to the administration to the staff to community groups.
“It’s not just the board,” he said. “(We had) a strong grass-roots campaign that started rolling, getting the word out, and one thing led to another.”
Upper Dublin’s 2013 SAT scores were among the 10 highest in Pennsylvania, and Pladus attributes that, in part, to the new school. He said the project enhanced the overall academic climate and programs the school was able to provide.
O’Donnell said he is paying attention to the attempts that have come before this State College effort.
The SCASD board has brought on former Upper Dublin school board member Mike Paston in an advisory capacity, and has studied what worked and what didn’t in other referendums.
“There’s no doubt using the wisdom from other people’s experiences is a big help for us,” O’Donnell said. “We have that information and we’re using that information.”
The final push
With about 10 weeks left until voters have the final say, the district is pushing to reach as many people as possible with its high school plan.
Although 16 school districts have tried, O’Donnell said, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. But he thinks the path to success is through personal interaction with voters, educating them about the specifics.
“People need to understand what the project is and what it isn’t,” he said, “and the best way to do that is have conversations with people, not simply advertise or mail things.”
Board members, administrators and supporters have been traveling to coffee shops, boardrooms and personal residences — anywhere people will listen. O’Donnell said district representatives have been attending or hosting 10 to 15 events per week, and they have been getting largely positive feedback.
But after all the planning, preparation and due diligence, the choice ultimately comes down to the voters.
Each person who turns out at the polls will have the option to vote yes or no to allow the district to take on debt in the sum of $85 million.
District leaders say a majority of yes votes means a high school with expansive renovations and new construction, while a majority of no votes means a scramble to plug problems with the failing buildings, costing the district millions anyway.
Himes said the rest of the state is watching Happy Valley, with school leaders elsewhere hoping State College bucks the trend and shows that getting voters to support a school referendum is possible.
“I think there will be a lot of eyes on State College, and it won’t have anything to do with football or Penn State,” Himes said. “I think this is a significant potential breakthrough. Or if it fails, I think it will be, ‘This is why we shouldn’t even bother trying it.’ ”