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Patty Kleban: High School Renovation Project Needs to be Collective Community Effort

by on November 26, 2012 6:41 AM

Nope. Not going to do it. Don’t even ask. Not interested.

State College Area High School renovation plans back on the school board agenda? I’ll be at home on Monday nights watching reruns of Family Guy.

Here we are again. What to do about the high school?

In many ways the climate for discussion about what to do with State High is very different than it was in 2005. In other ways, it is exactly the same.

First, the economy is different today than it was on the last go-around. Regardless of differences in perceptions of how we got here or what one believes will pull us out of this mess, all will agree that the economy is unstable. Although the local situation is more solid, unemployment, mandated health care, taxes, and uncertainty about the future on the state and national level will impact how much we are willing and able to spend on a local issue like a high school renovation. Coupled with the uncertainties of a yet-to-be negotiated SCASD teacher contract and the employee retirement benefit crisis that is facing all government entities, our community needs to look very carefully at the price tag on this and any taxpayer funded expenditures.

Second, we have a different school board. In response to the “us versus them” of the previous school board, this group - including some people who I admittedly did not support with my vote – have made engaging the public a priority. Almost to a fault, this board has bent over backwards to make sure that their decision making processes are transparent and they seem to avoid the trap that is groupthink on difficult issues. With thoughtful, rational leadership, cautious respect for each other and the community, and lessons learned from the previous renovation train wreck, this board has demonstrated care with district resources. New administration and a fresh perspective have also meant some new ways of conducting district business. This leadership won’t make the same mistakes.

Next, are the changes in the status of district facilities. The elementary buildings have been addressed. That leaves us with high school buildings that are now five years older. They are too hot, too cold, energy inefficient and, sometimes, under water. They have had only Band-Aid repairs for many years. Of equal concern, Memorial Field is now at crisis stage with unstable sinkhole features and unsafe spectator seating. Buildings and facilities in disrepair coupled with recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act suggest that hedging our bets with several of these key community assets is a potential legal and financial time bomb. .

There are additional factors that will impact the current analysis that weren’t here the last time. Expanding enrollment at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy, Grace Prep and other alternative secondary learning communities may translate into lower student numbers at State High. The plans for regional parks and the potential for shared infrastructure near those sites (like at Whitehall Road) might impact the decision. (The attached picture from 1963 shows the foresight of those decision makers to build a high school campus on the edge of town). The discussion about regional growth boundaries for other development projects could open up land use options for a new high school location.

Tools to engage the public through things like social media make this time around a whole different ballgame.

This time, it needs to be a collective effort with community input, particularly from young families with children in elementary school who want to have a say in how their kids experience high school. This time it needs to be “boots on the ground” community discussion. This time we need a diverse group of citizen advisers including representatives from business, community and Penn State. We need collaboration with municipal folks like Centre Region Parks and Recreation, community organizations like the Youth Service Bureau, and a holistic solution to designing, developing, and determining what to do with a community asset. We need stakeholder buy-in including taxpayers, parents, community leaders and most importantly, our school district faculty and staff.

This time and every time, we need elected officials who will make an objective, informed decision to address the needs – not wants – of our community, with a focus on education.

Taking into consideration the recurring issues as well as today’s environment, all options need to come back on the table and a cost-benefit analysis offered to the community with purposeful, reasoned alternatives to move forward. Using outdated public surveys or other “last time” information is faulty decision making. We need big picture thinking. We need public involvement. We need careful stewardship of our finances.

It doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to be expensive. The process just needs to be thorough.

The last renovation plan was the perfect storm of a flawed process, an outrageous price tag and a frustrated community. This time we know better. Many of those who were involved the last time are ready to pass the baton. Our kids are older, the community is alert, and the pieces are all there to make this important community decision. It’s time for the community to step up, get involved and help make a difference.

This time, I’ll be cheering you on from my living room couch.

Recent Columns:

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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