Our View | Give taxpayers complete picture on school project

As the State College Area School District’s high school project continues to take shape, the potential impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks is a recurring theme.

The district has done a good job of working to provide current information on the project’s estimated costs, and has provided a place on its website where residents can calculate their individual estimated tax impact based upon various possible construction and borrowing scenarios.

The school board will meet for a work session on the high school project Monday evening. Finances will certainly be central to those talks. The high school project’s price tag is about $115 million.

“We need to show people the tax impact so it’s clear at a glance what they can expect,” Amber Concepcion, vice president of the board, said after a recent meeting.

We agree. And we also concur with those who are asking that the district include other costs residents would be asked to support at the same time a high school project would be coming together, so that residents have a complete picture of what they should expect.

Don Gordon, of Patton Township, is a frequent contributor to our letters to the editor. He correctly points out that the high school project, to go before voters in a referendum next spring, is not the only cost factor at play.

He points to retirement and pension costs linked to school employees as “the elephant that cannot be ignored” when discussing future tax levels.

Indeed, pensions are a looming issue for our state government and all school districts in Pennsylvania.

The governor’s office says state employee pension accounts were underfunded by about $47 billion when 2013 began and would hit $65 billion by 2018 under current conditions.

The governor proposed a reform package, and various plans have been floated in the legislature.

That issue must be addressed.

Regardless, state employee pensions will affect local taxpayers in a significant way.

And school district taxpayers naturally are also on the hook to their municipalities, the county, the state and the federal government.

We would urge the State College district to work with municipalities within the district with a goal of avoiding hitting residents from too many directions.

State College borough officials are proposing a 1.5-mill property tax increase for 2014, as we reported this past week.

The borough hasn’t increased taxes since 2009, and 1.5 mills is not a large jump. But the same residents who help the borough meet its expenses will be likewise asked to pony up for the school district.

And for the district, the taxes generated by the high school project in the coming years would be on top of traditional levies that support everyday programs and staffing.

We believe the district has worked to communicate with residents and to provide a transparent process.

School leaders will need to work within their own stated spending limits. The total cost of a new high school can’t be a moving target.

Likewise, taxpayers will benefit from complete and current information at every milestone until the work is finished — if that is the course residents ultimately choose.

Board President Penni Fishbaine called the complicated and far-reaching high school project “a 50-year solution” to the community’s academic needs.

The next six months will determine if taxpayers see a long-term vision worth the dollars they’ll be asked to contribute.