State College

Overwhelming ‘yes’: State College Area voters strongly approve tax increase for high school

State College Area School District board member Amber Concepcion, left, talks with Hope Coder Tuesday outside the Oakwood Presbyterian Church precinct. The State College Area School District’s referendum to fund $115 million renovations to State High passed by a wide margin.
State College Area School District board member Amber Concepcion, left, talks with Hope Coder Tuesday outside the Oakwood Presbyterian Church precinct. The State College Area School District’s referendum to fund $115 million renovations to State High passed by a wide margin. CDT photos

State College Area School District bucked the odds Tuesday and made history.

In the primary election, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum question that asked whether the district could borrow $85 million to finance the construction of a new State College Area High School on the school’s current Westerly Parkway site.

The final count of 11,121 to 3,975 gives the green light for the district to proceed with the project.

“I think the main thing we can take away from this is that the people in this community want to take care of the young people in the community and educate them well in a facility that supports that experience,” SCASD Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said.

It’s only the second time since 2006 — when the General Assembly adopted the Act 1 index that limits yearly school tax increases to a inflation-based number — that a school district has passed a referendum for a construction project.

Previously, 15 out of 16 attempts failed.

“It’s amazing, the amount of work we’ve put in, the amount of consensus that we have achieved,” SCASD board President Penni Fishbaine said from her home as fellow board members and project supporters celebrated.

“I just believe this is the community consensus. They have spoken today.”

Under the district’s plan, the South Building will be replaced with a single, multistory school. Some of the North Building will be kept and renovated to house the Delta Program and athletic facilities.

The initial $115 million design includes revamped driveways and parking lots for both buildings, improved stormwater management systems and drains to mitigate the flooding that has plagued the North Building, and upgraded sports fields.

For the district, the vote validates a sustained two-year dialogue with the community and a concerted public relations effort down the stretch.

Through its website and mailings, school district officials argued that the buildings, both more than 50 years old, had become inadequate and dilapidated, with failing electrical, plumbing and heating systems. Moreover, they said, the campus was unsafe because students have to cross Westerly Parkway to get to class.

“The returns show that the community has a pretty high level of confidence in the proposal that we’ve put forth,” O’Donnell said. “I think the support really lies in the community really understanding the process that took place in the last two years.”

Last year, the district conducted a survey of about 7,000 randomly selected residents that narrowed down six building options to two with large amounts of support. After community forums — some of the more than 150 public meetings during the process — the board then chose the final design.

This winter and spring, board members and district officials met with civic groups — including the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, which endorsed the project — and went door to door in neighborhoods to answer questions.

“I have a real sense of gratitude to the community for their willingness to make an investment in this, and for the trust they have placed in us to follow through with this project in a responsible way,” board Vice President Amber Concepcion said.

Opponents of the project criticized the cost, saying the district could renovate the State High buildings for far less than a new school. They also worried that taxpayers, particularly lower-income households and senior citizens, would be burdened.

Charles Ratschky, 91, a Brookline Village resident, said Tuesday that he voted against the referendum because he’s on a fixed income.

At a 5.3 percent interest rate, the average 25-year rate for AA bonds, interest payments would push the referendum debt’s cost to $166 million. The referendum tax increase, which will only be used for the project, will amount to about a 7 percent increase, or about an additional 2.7 mills.

For a homeowner with a $250,000 market value property, the estimated annual cost will be $192, or $16 a month.

The district, which has promised to stick to the $115 million design budget, will contribute $10 million from existing district reserves and $20 million in additional loans. With all interest payments, under the 5.3 percent interest rate, the district estimates the total project cost will be $221 million.

On Tuesday, the referendum question sparked a higher-than-normal turnout for off-year elections in many precincts.

The referendum “is definitely the turnout driver,” said Matt Yarnell, a campaign volunteer for state Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Three Springs, who was at the Patton Township Municipal Building.

Reed McCormick, a local attorney, said he supported the referendum.

“I just voted myself to spend a couple thousand dollars,” he said. “But I think it’s necessary at this time. It’s a 50-year-old building that could have been maintained. But it wasn’t and now it needs to be replaced.”

Matt Gardner, of Patton Township, also cast a “yes” vote.

“A ‘no’ vote doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “I’ve seen the shape of the building. I have kids in the district. I like the plan they’ve come up with. And I’m willing to pony up.”

Concepcion stood outside the Oakwood Presbyterian Church precincts in Patton Township to answer questions about the high school project — her final outreach to the community after many months.

“It’s a big ask we’re making,” she said. “Maybe it should take a big effort for such a big ask.”

Concepcion asked Hope Coder, who attended State High and had three of her four sons graduate from the school, how she would vote on the referendum.

Coder smiled and gave her a thumbs-up.

“If you’re going to spend almost as much to repair it, why not get what you need?” Coder said, referring to the $70 million the district said it would need to spend to renovate the current buildings in lieu of a new school.

“I have some mixed feelings, because it’s a lot of money to spend. But the kids need a good education.”

Leslie Jones, a grandmother, was inspired to vote at the College Heights School building because of the referendum. Her 12-year-old grandson would go to the proposed new high school.

Jones said she is in favor the project, even if it means higher taxes.

“I think it’s something the community needs,” she said.

Victoria Patrick, a 2010 State High graduate, has a brother who’s a sophomore. She talked to voters about the referendum outside the Patton Township building.

“A lot of my friends who went there, their parents went to the same school and it’s still the same,” Patrick said. “It’s just in really bad shape.”

At a Ferguson Township precinct, Nancy Chiswick, wearing a referendum “yes” button, also spoke with voters.

“Education is central to the future of our community and the world,” she said. “We as citizens, voters and parents have a responsibility to the young people to give them a facility that will encourage learning.”

Eva Corsaro moved to State College four years ago from Indianapolis, where she had lived most of her life. She voted to authorize the $85 million in debt.

“It’s embarrassing that our community’s children have to go to a school that is in such bad shape,” she said.

“Of course it will cost people money. But people should care about the future of our children, their safety and the building in which they’re learning.”

With the referendum behind it, the district now will hire a construction project liaison, work with architects to complete the design and, by early 2015, start taking bids. The district anticipates starting 30 months of construction a year from now, working through three phases to minimize disruptions for students and finishing in 2018.

Fishbaine, O’Donnell and Concepcion thanked teachers, school district employees, students and residents who support the proposal.

“I feel the community wants this,” Fishbaine said. “The community definitely wants this to happen, and together we can make it happen. We’ll continue to listen to input because we’re going to have a lot of work ahead.”

Concepcion agreed that further community engagement will be critical.

“This has been an open process,” she said. “I think it’s something that even the folks who said they were not supporting the project think. We’ve heard from a lot of them that they appreciated the open process that we’ve been working toward up to this point.

“Going forward, I would certainly expect to continue having a process that’s open to community input. Many of the major decisions, as we’re going forward with this project, will be at public board meetings, and we hope people will come out to board meetings and keep in touch with us along the way.”