A master planning initiative surrounding a piece of land purchased by the Penns Valley Area School Board last March is focusing on safety and security, educational opportunities and extracurricular programming.
The 117 and three-fourths-acre land parcel borders the north and west boundaries of Penns Valley Area Junior/Senior High School and the south and west boundaries of the Penns Valley Elementary and Intermediate School, said Superintendent Brian Griffith.
“(The purchase) was an opportunity that became available to the district, that districts don’t always get the opportunity to pursue,” he said. “The district for quite some time has wanted that property.”
Penns Valley’s high school and elementary-intermediate school are separated by state Route 45, a busy main road that often gets backed up during morning drop-off and afternoon dismissal, said Griffith. For various extracurricular activities, students have to cross the busy road, creating safety concerns for the district and many parents.
With the new property, Griffith said, the district is exploring options of opening up township roads for more access to the high school and creating more parking so that parents and students don’t have to cross Route 45 from the parking lot at the elementary/intermediate school to get to a sporting event at the high school. There are about 300 parking spots on the high school side and and 100 spots on the elementary side.
But community input is central to the planning initiative, high school principal Dustin Dalton said. “Basically what we are asking them (is) ... we have this land ... what are the problems that exist that are, due to traffic patterns, safety concerns ... after you’ve identified what might be a potential problem, what are some solutions to those problems?”
The district is working with the architecture firm Derck & Edson, with offices in Lititz and Bellefonte, to formalize the master plan.
At a community input meeting Thursday about what the land should be used for, the primary suggestion was for safety — somehow minimizing the amount students have to cross Route 45.
Some also advocated for its use in extracurricular programs like the Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs, or for outdoor gardens and sustainability initiatives. Others wanted to see more parking for large events and more fields for athletics and marching band.
The school board will review the concepts collected from stakeholder meetings and come up with several options for the land use at its Feb. 20 meeting, according to a timeline from the district. There will then be two opportunities on March 13 and 19 for the community to review the options the board comes up with and vote on them. The school board will have a work session April 3 and will adopt the land use plan at its April 17 meeting.
Legal land purchase?
Several residents raised questions about the school district’s purchase of the land, over which Gregg Township residents Casey and Michelle Grove filed a civil complaint in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas Oct. 15. The complaint alleges that the Penns Valley Area School Board, under the direction of board president Chris Houser, violated state Sunshine Act laws by failing to publicly vote on the $1.2 million purchase of the land prior to buying it at a March 23, 2018 public auction.
According to Michelle Grove in a post on the Penns Valley Free Press, Griffith said the board voted on the purchase at a March 29 special meeting, but did not specify when a public vote took place prior to the purchase. The district, according to records obtained by Grove through the Right-to-Know Law, held several executive sessions to discuss legal matters prior to purchasing the land.
Houser, who attended Thursday night’s community meeting, told residents “safety and security, without question, is the reason we purchased that property ... now, the community has an opportunity to weigh in on what they want to see done on the property, before we make any decisions that would go against maybe what the community wanted to say.”
When one resident asked if the board was facing an “ethics violation” for the purchase, Houser said, “absolutely not.”
Because the school district is a government entity, the board’s purchase means the property is off the district’s taxrolls, said Houser.
“We were able to buy that property with surplus built up over the years, so we paid cash for the property,” he said. “It’s not really costing us anything; from the standpoint of what that money would’ve brought from the bank, (it) is equivalent to roughly the rents that were being paid, so all that stuff, it’s not a big deal at this point.”
The civil complaint against PVASB is still pending, and the Groves filed a request for oral arguments on Jan. 28 in response to the board’s preliminary objections, according to court documents.