Opinion

Join State College Area School District in planning for future

The goal of facility planning in the State College Area School District has long been to provide our students with school buildings that support and enhance our educational programs. This goal is at the forefront of our board’s effort to move forward with an updated districtwide facilities master plan focused on our oldest elementary school buildings.

In a district of our size, with 13 educational facilities, adhering to an ongoing renovation, replacement and maintenance schedule for our buildings has been a critical component of providing school facilities that meet our community’s needs.

Since 1999, SCASD has been working through a plan to replace elementary facilities that were constructed between the 1930s and 1950s with new or fully renovated buildings. Now that the State High project is under construction on Westerly Parkway, it is time to turn our attention to the four remaining elementary buildings that have not been updated for many decades.

We are considering options for Corl Street, Houserville/Lemont, and Radio Park elementary schools that include renovation and additions to these buildings or replacing them with new construction, and the possibility of repurposing the Corl Street and Lemont Elementary buildings for other uses.

In regard to Lemont Elementary, a K-2 school, the district has planned since 2009 to combine Lemont with Houserville Elementary, which houses grades 3-5 from the same attendance area. As was the case in joining the Boalsburg and Panorama Village schools, having elementary students in each attendance area remain in one building for K-5 reduces children’s transitions, supports communication and collaboration among teachers across grade levels, and allows siblings to attend the same elementary facility.

There has been a great deal of community interest and concern related to the potential decision about the future of Corl Street Elementary. Any time that a school district conducts a districtwide facility master planning process, the state requires demographic analysis to project school-age population over the coming decade. This study is underway, and the results will be key information that our board will use to decide the appropriate number of elementary schools for our district and the scope of potential projects.

There will be other components contributing to our decision-making, as we work toward defining how the potential elementary project options can fit together to meet long-term community needs. A decision on the future of Corl Street Elementary will not be made without very careful consideration of all factors, including: the educational implications of the various options, the financial effect of those options, the potential community impact and the input from stakeholders.

The SCASD board is planning to make some decisions in the fall; all of the options will be thoroughly evaluated. Our timeline has been influenced by the availability of potential state funding for these projects. In planning for future capital projects, we have been able to allocate $40 million in capital funds and borrowing capacity for upcoming elementary projects, but we have also identified other potential resources.

In March and April, as the state budget impasse was finally being resolved, the state discontinued a grant program for green building projects through the Department of Community and Economic Development. The state also placed a moratorium on state reimbursement for school construction (a program known as PlanCon).

By acting swiftly, our district was able to meet deadlines to put our elementary projects into the pipeline to be eligible to receive the state funds before the doors closed. PlanCon could provide $2.2 million to $2.4 million for these projects. In addition, a DCED grant could reimburse two projects by 10 percent of construction costs, up to $2 million each, but it would come with a catch: significant construction would need to be completed by June 2018.

Normally with school construction projects, districts apply for PlanCon funding and grants after months of designing and community input. We had a chance to decrease the use of local tax dollars for these projects by applying for available state funds. If we had not applied this spring and set the facilities master plan update in motion, that opportunity would have vanished. Having secured eligibility for this funding, we will now take the necessary time for community feedback and careful planning related to the scope and design of these projects.

Three community meetings already have yielded valuable input for board members as we begin to weigh the pros and cons of the building options. A fourth forum will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday at Mount Nittany Middle School.

Additional meetings, all at 7 p.m., are scheduled for July 18 at Ferguson Township Elementary, Aug. 15 at Mount Nittany Elementary and Sept. 19 at a location to be determined.

Please join us at one of the upcoming meetings. We are so grateful for the great care and value that our community places on its schools, and believe that the best decisions will come from a process that engages our community in planning.

Amber Concepcion and Jim Leous are president and vice president, respectively, of the State College Area school board.

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