Two years of work comes down to one day.
On Tuesday during the primary election, voters will decide whether the State College Area School District can borrow $85 million toward a $115 million project to build a new high school campus on the aging school’s existing grounds along Westerly Parkway.
If the ballot referendum passes, the district will have the green light to create a new school out of the existing South Building, refurbish the North Building to house the Delta Program and athletic facilities and improve traffic access and stormwater drainage on the campus.
But if “no” votes outnumber “yes” votes, the district’s concerted public outreach campaign — which has included a survey to narrow down building options, several community forums, school tours and school board members meeting with civic groups and going door to door in neighborhoods — would be for naught.
“We knew we had to be transparent,” board President Penni Fishbaine said. “That was No. 1. And we had to have an open process.”
District administrators, school board members and residents in favor of the State High project have hammered home a consistent message: Change must happen.
They contend the current buildings, constructed more than a half-century ago, are cramped, flood-prone and obsolete; saddled with failing electrical, heating and plumbing systems; and unsafe because students often cross Westerly between classes.
Without the referendum’s debt authorization, proponents say, the district will face up to $70 million in renovations that do not solve the larger infrastructure issues and ultimately fall short of meeting students’ needs.
“Thinking about what our total cost would be for over the next 30 years, which would be the total life of the (referendum) bond, I think it’s reasonable to say doing planned spending like this is going to be more cost effective than crisis spending as the systems in these buildings fail,” board Vice President Amber Concepcion said.
Opponents, concerned about the overall cost and the proposed tax increase, have questioned the push for a new campus. They say the district should have maintained the existing buildings better, but that they could be renovated to modern standards for far less than what the district and school board claim.
“They have this idea that we should have this Taj Mahal of a high school building, and they’re determined to make everybody pay through the nose to have it,” said Brian Kaleita, a local property management business owner.
The SCASD board has been down this road before.
In 2007, after two years of planning, it ended up scrapping a controversial plan to renovate the North Building after bids came over budget. The plan had its supporters but also sparked vocal opposition in the community.
A group formed during the public discussions, State High Vision, campaigned against the more than $100 million project, and voters elected a new majority of board members opposed to the construction.
Making matters worse, the board entered into a complex interest rate swap contract with the Royal Bank of Canada to help finance the project. But interest rates fell unfavorably for the board, and it never borrowed the money.
As time went without the board paying its contract termination fee, and because interest rates didn’t shift in favor of the district, the cost to end the agreement grew to about $10 million, drawing public ire.
Last year, after trading lawsuits with the bank, the district agreed to a $9 million settlement, paying two-thirds of that amount. The rest will be paid gradually over the next four years with reserve funds.
Superintendent Bob O’Donnell, Concepion and Fishbaine said the district, this time around, sought to engage the community more and make the planning a more democratic process.
“I think, reflecting on the last process, what’s fundamentally different about this is that there’s a referendum at the end,” Concepcion said. “Rather than the next board election needing to be a referendum on the project, the public gets to go vote.
“So the entire process has been designed toward trying to find a solution that could be successful in the referendum, because it is our responsibility as a board to provide for safe and secure facilities for our students.”
To gauge public opinion, the district last year mailed a survey to 6,751 randomly selected households in the district, asking residents to assess six building options for the high school project. The district received 1,857 responses.
Results showed that 91 percent thought it was important to upgrade the high school buildings, and 55 percent supported investing more than $100 million.
Concept B (two renovated buildings with additions on either side of Westerly, connected by a walkway) and Concept D (one new/renovated building with core classrooms on the south side while retaining some of the North Building) received the most support.
The other concepts, including two new buildings on Westerly, a new building elsewhere and renovations only to the existing buildings, drew much lower levels of support, and were eventually dropped.
“The survey gave us a lot,” Fishbaine said.
O’Donnell said the district, through the survey, forums and other feedback, set three goals for the State High project: upgraded infrastructure; a safer campus; and improved classrooms, libraries and laboratories that better foster students’ education.
“Those three priorities have come out of a process of learning,” O’Donnell said. “Our board has really designed a transparent process to listen to people during the past two years. And this (referendum) proposal is the result of that.”
District officials point to a long list of shortcomings for the North and South buildings.
They say both buildings have original steam heating systems far past their expected lifespans, and outdated and inadequate electrical systems, lighting, temperature control and air ventilation systems. Most of the classrooms lack air-conditioning.
O’Donnell said the students often can be seen wearing coats in class during the winter, and classrooms and auditoriums can be sweltering in warmer months.
“Those are extremes, but I think it’s pretty reasonable to say kids should be able to learn in a climate that’s not extreme,” O’Donnell said. “It should be a comfortable climate for them to learn in.”
Both buildings have retained their original, mostly single-pane windows that are deteriorating and waste energy, according to the district. Improved windows and more efficient heating systems would use less energy, but the district does not expect a net savings on its power bill from the project because of the addition of air conditioning.
Modern wiring, though, could prevent problems such as a recent fire in an overhead fixture, O’Donnell said. On one of the district’s promotional YouTube videos for the State High project, a science teacher notes he has to coordinate labs with colleagues to avoid overloading circuits.
The South Building was built as a junior high school in 1962, five years after the original section of the North Building. The buildings were paired as a single high school in 1967.
Although additions have been constructed over the years — most notably the natatorium and main gym at the North Building in 1989 — the high school’s core facilities such as the libraries, auditoriums and cafeterias remained their original size as the student population grew.
In 2009, a third-party assessment of the North and South buildings brought respective 59 percent and 57 percent facility condition ratings, according to the district.
Flooding from heavy rains and leaky roofs have been a chronic problem for the North Building, leading to puddles inside and out as well as mold and water damage in subterranean rooms. Band practice facilities, the district says, are inadequate and vulnerable to water.
Many parts of the building also do not meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accessibility for handicapped people, the district says.
Overall, the district says, the 1950s and 1960s configurations no longer fit modern educational practices and the district’s goal of moving toward having teams of teachers and students paired together to build connections.
Plus, O’Donnell said, it’s dangerous to have a campus that requires students to cross a well-traveled street several times a day. Under the plan, all classrooms, except for those in the Delta Program, would be in a new 3-story South Building.
“Nobody designed a campus with two parking lots and real busy parkway between those two buildings for 2,400 kids,” he said. “That was never designed. It happened because of increased population.”
By state law, the district can only refer to the principal sum of the debt it’s seeking with a referendum.
“Shall debt in the sum of eighty-five million dollars for the purpose of financing new construction and renovations for the State College Area High School be authorized to be incurred as debt approved by the electors?” reads the ballot question that every registered voter in the district, including independents, is eligible to answer.
But in reality, the State High project will cost more.
The district has capped the project at $115 million, promising to come in at or under budget — though Don Gordon, a persistent critic of the plan, has pointed out that a referendum “is not a public contract or binding resolution.”
“Nothing precludes a next school board from significantly changing the project or a construction cost that exceeds $115 million,” the State College resident wrote in a letter published on April 16 in the Centre Daily Times.
Of the additional funds, $10 million would come from existing district reserves, and the district would issue $20 million in bonds, taking the annual principal and interest payments out of its operating budget from current tax revenue.
For the $85 million debt, the district anticipates 30-year bonds at a 5.3 percent interest rate, a 25-year average for AA- bonds used to calculate approximate costs to property owners.
Under that rate, the total estimated project cost would be $221 million. If the current interest rate of 4.5 percent remains, the total would be $206 million.
Homeowners would see a tax increase of about 2.7 mills, or $2.7 for every $1,000 of property assessed value. Once phased in, that amounts to about a 7 percent total tax increase.
But the referendum tax increase will be a separate line item on tax bills, and can only be used to pay down the principal and interest of the referendum-authorized debt. When the debt is repaid, the district will eliminate the tax.
Some opponents say the increase will burden lower-income residents.
“Many of the people on fixed incomes are not going to be able to afford it,” Kaleita said.
District officials say taxes will decrease as the district’s tax base grows. In addition, Concepcion and Fishbaine said, the district is looking into tax-relief programs for lower-income residents.
For the owner of $250,000 market value property with an estimated assessed value of $71,023, the annual referendum tax will be $192, or $16 a month.
Fishbaine noted that’s about 50 cents a day.
“That’s the decision (homeowners) have to make,” she said. “Is this project worth it?”
The Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County thinks so.
It endorsed the State High project, urging voters to approve the referendum. CBICC President Vern Squier has said the high school buildings clearly need to be upgraded, and that better educational facilities could attract businesses to the area and spur economic development.
“We can’t fall into such a state that (the high school) is noticeable in its inefficiencies,” Squier said.
Other supporters formed Friends of State High, a private group that has distributed literature, yard signs and buttons advocating the referendum debt, measures the district cannot legally spend money to take.
Pete Schempf, of Harris Township, is among those calling for a no vote.
Schempf, who grew up in State College and went to State High, said he thinks the district failed to keep up the high school buildings properly over the years, allowing them to fall into disrepair, and is now fixating on a new school as the solution.
“There are better ways to do things, and one of them is to maintain the buildings while you’re in there, and they’ve clearly not done that, and that’s a shame,” Schempf said.
Kaleita considers the project “excessive,” and Schempf agrees. Both said they think taxpayers would be better served if the district spent the $30 million earmarked for a new school on renovations.
“I live in a 200-year-old house, and I have a geothermal heating system in it,” Schempf said. “You can do whatever you want to do. The problem is, they don’t want to fix it. They think flashier is better.”
According to the district, the State High project would have a projected construction cost of $165 per square foot, less than the $211 median figure for high school construction in the state.
Concepcion and Fishbaine said the selected design makes efficient use of the property grounds without embellishments, adding practical features such as a better driveway loop at the South Building, to facilitate school bus arrivals and departures, and stormwater traps.
“So we’re doing a very reasonable project,” Fishbaine said.
As for past maintenance, O’Donnell said the district has not neglected the school.
“We’ve replaced boilers, and we’ve had a maintenance process in place where we spend a large portion of our yearly maintenance funds, which is $2 million a year, on the high school,” he said. “We’ve replaced many of the roofs over there over time.”
But the district has deferred some maintenance.
Concepcion and Fishbaine said retrofitting aging buildings with “big ticket items” such as new heating, electrical, plumbing and stormwater drainage systems would have been expensive and disruptive to students displaced by ripped-open walls and torn-up floors.
In recent years, Concepcion said, it also didn’t make sense for the district to make major changes and “entrench ourselves” in increasingly inadequate buildings — in other words, to substitute a Band-Aid approach for a comprehensive, long-term solution.
“What we heard from the community, not only in the survey but from when we’ve talked with a lot of people, is that’s not what they wanted,” Fishbaine said. “They want something forward-looking, and that’s where we are with that.”
Time running out
If the referendum passes, the district will proceed with the project, with an eye toward finishing in 2018.
Opponents wonder if the project will saddle the district financially and lead to higher taxes.
But because budgeting has left the district in “relative financial health,” district officials say, a successful referendum will allow them to finance the high school while “managing yearly operating costs, including pensions and facility needs, within the framework of Act 1.”
Act 1 limits the tax increases school districts levy to an inflation-based index. SCASD is counting on an $11 million reserve fund to lessen the effect of rising pension payments.
Construction of the new school would be done in three phases to minimize disruptions to students.
If the referendum fails, the district says it would face $70 million in renovations anyway — a figure opponents Kaleita and Schempf think is inflated — and have to pass a referendum to borrow the money.
O’Donnell said the district will conduct exit polls on Tuesday, and that its next step after an unsuccessful referendum would depend on what voters say. The district, he said, could float another referendum in November, but a rejection this week could set back a new high school project for years, to the detriment of students.
“We can’t wait much longer to do something,” O’Donnell said. “If we don’t get permission from the community on a proposal that’s a long-term solution, then we’re going to be forced to start fixing it up in place.”
Added Concepcion: “We’ve run out the clock on this.”
The same goes for two years of discussions. Now the voters take over.