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The Power of the People

by on May 26, 2014 8:05 AM

And, that my friends, is how it's done.

Last week's referendum on the planned renovation at State College Area High School represents more than just a community coming together to support a plan.

It was a real-time demonstration of how our representative form of government can work when we work it.

The seeds for the community vote to support the referendum and the approval of the use of tax dollars to build the new high school were planted back in 2005 when the current crop of high schoolers was in elementary school. A district-wide master plan was developed that put the renovation of the high school at the forefront of the district's facility needs.

The community understood that the buildings were in need of some attention to bring the facility into the new millenium.

In an effort to beat the pending legislation that would eventually set up last week's referendum, the sitting board in 2005 attempted to rush through a plan for the high school that was both flawed in its design and for which the public had not been included.

When the public started asking questions, elected officials dug in their heels and started lobbing accusations about "big money" developers calling the shots and a "vocal minority" raising opposition to the plan. (Ironically, some of those officials and their supporters are now asking for their three minutes to talk about the College Heights school building sale and seem to have done a 180 on open meetings and public involvement in board decisions).

I still smile every time someone on one of the internet comment sites or in an email makes a reference to State High Vision, the opposition group that formed in response to the "Sit down. We know better." mentality of that board, as the reason the plan was abandoned. Believe me, we tried.

However, in those not so good old days before school tax referenda in Pennsylvania, citizens had exactly zero power to control a run-away school board other than to wait for and vote every two years in school board elections.

State High Vision made a lot of noise but could do nothing to stop plans for the renovation. The community did, however, have the power to make decisions about who sits at the school board table – and we used it. The election that seated five new members at the board table was essentially our referendum.

And then, as the community predicted, the plans came in over budget. Before the new board could be sworn in, the old guard was forced by PA Department of Education regulations to either spend even more money or to abandon the flawed plans. The headline the next day in the local paper was "Board Votes to Scrap Plans."

After the dust settled, the new school board and new school administrators rolled up their sleeves and started to work. At the top of their to-do list was a priority to engage the public.

Community surveys. Several options whittled down to two and then one. An improved website. Mailings. Emails. Community meetings. Offers to visit homeowner or neighborhood groups. Social media. Tours of the buildings. Articles online and in the newspaper. Radio talk shows.

It was kind of hard to ignore.

As with any political issue, there were differences of opinion. Location. Design. And, of course, taxes. This board (including some members I didn't vote for) took the time to hear concerns and provide answers.

For the record, I personally believe that one high school on Westerly Parkway is not the best option that was offered. I believed and still believe that two smaller schools – rather than small learning communities in a big school – would offer more opportunities both in and out of the classroom.

I also understand that with any democratic process, an individual's opinion may not represent the majority of his or her neighbors and fellow citizens.

Last Tuesday's referendum was as much a testament to elected officials engaging their constituents as it was about the value of education in our community. While other school boards and other referenda have failed, our community stood together and gave the emphatic thumbs up.

We were part of the process.

As we look ahead to plans for a new school, teacher input on education space and design, and sending our kids the message that we want them to learn in a positive, healthy and safe environment, we can (I hope) put the high school renovation controversy to rest. Pending good planning and effective project management, we may soon have a new high school.

Representative government and an open process that demonstrated respect for the community voice?

It's a done deal.

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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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