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Let There Be Lights

by on February 12, 2019 5:00 AM

 

…darkness has a hunger that's insatiable

and lightness has a call that's hard to hear

- Indigo Girls

Here we are on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Sunrise today in Happy Valley occurs at 7:09 a.m. and sunset falls at 5:42 pm. Only 10 hours and 33 minutes of light, but 13 hours 27 minutes of dark. Darkness is winning and has been since Sept. 26, 2018 when sunrise occurred at 7:03 a.m. and sunset was at 7:01 p.m.

However, in a little over a month, on March 17, sunrise will occur at 7:20 in the morning and sunset will be at 7:20 that night. Exactly 12 hours each of light and dark. From that day forward light will start winning, right up to Sept. 26 when sunrise is at 7:02 a.m. and the sun sets at 7:02 pm.

These dates, although not exactly the same every year, are very consistent and vary by just a few days. It will be much the same for centuries.

The small hitch with this timing is that our local public school system, the State College Area School District, runs their current  school year from Aug. 27, 2018 to June 7, 2019. A little over nine months and a week of school. Of that nine-plus months, only the first and last two months are during “lightness wins” time – just a third of the academic year. During the other six months of school – two-thirds of the academic year – darkness is winning.

And there are quite a few students at district schools who suffer from this darkened reality. Those would be the students who play on the sports teams and in the band and need outdoor fields. The teams these students play on include football, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, softball, baseball and track.

Here in Happy Valley we pride ourselves on the quality of our school system. We enjoy the district and individual schools being highly ranked by various entities. Real estate agents tout the benefits to newcomers and it’s common to hear remarks that colleges and universities are aware of the quality of a State College public education.

But as fall advances, as darkness wins and lightness loses, it gets more difficult to schedule these field-oriented sports, because the State College Area School District only has had only one field with lights. That’s Memorial Field downtown, with a bunch of teams and the band trying to schedule games and practices.

Here’s the ugly truth about athletics in Happy Valley – as good as the local school district may be academically, and as good as the teams may be, it’s the opposite from an athletic facilities standpoint. Travel around the state and it’s extremely uncommon for a school system of this size, let alone one with the financial wherewithal of this one, to have its primary high school playing field, and the only one with lights, nowhere near its high school.

In the fall, as daylight starts disappearing closer and closer to 5 in the afternoon, practices have to be cut short because only one team can be using the field with lights – and games take precedence over practice. And it’s a common occurrence for games to be cut short or not played at all because of darkness. Last fall the school district rented gas-powered lights for its South Track field just so a few soccer games could be completed. Imagine that. Here we are living in the 21st century, the year 2019, 140 years after Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb, and our student-athletes can’t play games or musical instruments because they don’t have lights. Not only unfathomable, but darn near hypocritical if our motto is excellence in education.

In addition, this logjam for field space makes it necessary for students to get out of school early – for home games! The student-athletes get out an hour or more early so they have time to change and warm-up. Missing school – for home games – because we don’t have enough fields with lights.

And it affects not only us, but other schools and their students as well. In 2012-2013, the State College Area School District was admitted into the Mid Penn Conference in all high school sports. A game between State College and any other Mid Penn Conference division team starting at 4 p.m. means the opposing team’s players are getting out of school at or before noon. So they are missing a half day of school because we only have had one field with lights. So our shortcomings cause other students to miss school. Something unusual given how well we do in all the other aspects of the public schools here.

Luckily we are in the midst of a $140-million-plus renovation of the high school campus and will soon add a new lighted turf field which will alleviate some congestion. Plus the district will likely soon install lights on the existing South Track Field. This should then – more than 60 years after the high school was relocated to its current location – ensure that the school district will be able to schedule all sports games and practices and see them finish. What a concept – schedule a game and get to play it to completion. In addition, the band won’t have to practice in a parking lot. Imagine that – the high school marching band gets to practice on a field while cars get to park in a parking lot. What an interesting and exciting turn of events!

Except there’s one minor fly in the ointment, as it were. You see, the school district doesn’t need approval from anyone other than the school board to install 25 foot tall lights on the South Track field. But being the good neighbor that it is, it sought approval from the State College Borough to install lights that are 70 feet tall rather than lights that are only 25 feet tall. The reason? Lights on taller poles can be directed down on the field rather than across the field. That way they don’t illuminate things much beyond the edges of the field. But to use the taller poles requires a zoning variance.

The borough’s process for such a variance request is to start at the Planning Commission. They review it, and if approved it goes to the full Borough Council, which also reviews it and makes a final decision.

The school district made an initial request to the Planning Commission in December, at which time the commission requested that the district hold a public meeting with local homeowners to get their input (which they did), and then resubmit a proposal in February. Last Wednesday, the school district went before the Planning Commission again in what I thought should have been a fairly straightforward approval. Taller lights make more sense for everyone.

The end result was anything but. One hour and 28 minutes of back-and-forth culminated in the decision to talk about it at another meeting at a later date. Should you care to watch the segment of the meeting that focused on this topic it’s available on C-NET here.

I won’t bore you with all of the details but the commentary and questions ran far afield from the sole question before the commission – are you O.K. with 70-foot light poles? The singular problem that most people seemed to have was that the school district was trying to have the high school function like – wait for it – a high school.

How shocking. That a high school should have a marching band that practices outdoors on a field. Or that sports teams might play later than 4:30 in the afternoon. Or that cars should park in parking lots. Or that all these things should happen in spaces that are conveniently located next to the school.

A few years ago the entire community was posed with the question of where to locate State College Area High School. More than 60 years after its transition from downtown State College to Westerly Parkway, and more than 50 years after the south building was added on the opposite side of the street, the decision was gratefully made that these buildings had exceeded their lifespan and had to go. The community could build a new campus somewhere on the outskirts of town – a proposal I and many others I know favored. Or we could keep the current campus and renovate. This was the chosen option.

Yet, here we are almost completed with this multi-year renovation project (whew!) and some folks seem disturbed that the high school wants to operate in a manner befitting a high school.

Unfortunately, the time for that has passed. Although I and others disagreed with the decision to keep the high school at its current location, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The school district is making choices that are for the benefit of the many and that includes outfitting the high school with all the needed components a high school in the year 2019 should have (and should have had for the last 40 years).

I understand sitting on a Planning Commission is difficult. I have no desire to do it. I understand that private landowners and developers can regularly look to gain economic advantage over others by appealing to Planning Commissions for help. It can be a thankless job.

But I also understand that when other governmental entities – in this case the school district – are looking for assistance from the Planning Commission it’s almost unheard of that it provides any economic advantage for an individual. It’s more often, as here, because previous decisions were made regarding zoning that hamstrings the governmental entity from doing its job for the benefit of the many. In which case, the Planning Commission should be doing everything it can to make sure, as appropriate, that the governmental entity has all the power it needs to run its operations in the way it deems best. The school district should not need to come to the Planning Commission to install 70-foot tall lights on its track and field area rather than 25-foot tall lights. That’s an essential function of running a school. If the district knows 70-foot lights are inherently better for all parties, then they should be able to install them — a topic the Planning Commission gratefully touched on but unfortunately put on the “long-term” agenda.

We’ve begun the movement to become a more enlightened community by bringing the high school buildings into this century and I look forward to seeing that vision completed. As the Indigo Girls say, “lightness has a call that’s hard to hear,” and it’s one the Borough Planning Commission hopefully heeds now.

 



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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