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CASE Makes Case for College Heights School

by on April 28, 2014 6:15 AM

It's really the perfect building, with classrooms and offices and it being so close to Penn State's campus as so many students volunteer for the groups that want to operate out of College Heights School.

That's according to Mary Dupuis, president of the Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education (CASE), which is an alliance of several non-profit groups that hopes State College Borough officials will take ownership of the building and in turn possibly give CASE an opportunity to purchase the building.

At issue is a pending sale between the State College Area School District and Penn State. The university wants to house University Press offices in the old school, which the district hasn't used as a school in years. Penn State has offered the district $400,000 for the property. The district wants to close the deal, however, the borough has first right of refusal on the property.

Borough officials are considering purchasing the school though it's unclear what they would do with the property. At the same time, some Borough Council members have questioned the way the district decided to sell the building – a negotiated private sale as opposed to an open bidding process.

CASE also feels mistreated during the sale process. Dupuis says two years ago CASE expressed interest in the building and then the district told the group they were no longer interested in selling it. Later, CASE learned through media reports that the district decided to sell the property to Penn State, Dupuis says.

"We had hoped that we would be able to get involved in the discussion. We always knew that if it became available that it was going to be a top choice for us," Dupuis says.

District officials have repeatedly said that account is false. District Solicitor Scott Etter says the district has several legal options when it comes to selling a school – sealed bids, auction or a negotiated private sale. In this case, the district opted for a private negotiated sale, the same route the district took when it sold Boalsburg Elementary School to Saint Joseph's Catholic Academy.

Eleven organizations make up CASE, from arts groups like Artistic Horizon to social services groups like Centre County United Way to education groups like Mid-State Literacy and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Penn State.

Dupuis says the groups would like to operate underneath one roof as a way to share expenses. Additionally, many Penn State students volunteer to teach immigrants English and illiterate residents how to read therefore a location within walking distance from campus is critical. The site would also be a place for the groups to offer cooking classes, classrooms, art studios and meeting rooms.

In addition to the $400,000 sale, Penn State says the university would spend roughly $600,000 for initial renovations and then another $1 million in renovations over time. So far, CASE only has $200,000 donated by the United Way and OLLI. Dupuis says a bank has agreed to a $200,000 loan. Additionally, if CASE were to acquire the property, Dupuis says additional donations would come in and the group would be eligible for various grants.

"We will have plenty of time to talk with investors and come up with the cash," she says.

Dianne Gregg, vice president of CASE who represents the State College branch of the American Association of University Women, says right now non-profit organizations are isolated and in dismal quarters due to rent costs.

"If we can interact in the same building, we can share ideas and build projects. Volunteers can visit more than one group per trip. For instance, someone might take an OLLI class, then go down the hall to volunteer for a good cause," Gregg says. "By sharing expenses, we can lower our overhead and put more money into the good causes we exist to serve. Once such facilities are in place, their towns love them. We hope State College will, too."

The AAUW is best known locally for its annual used book sale and educational grants it awards. The organization also sponsors Science, Technology, Engineering and Math projects for girls in three school districts, a multi-cultural themed book club, and issues the Gateway to Equity Award.

"By sharing space with other organizations whose goals are compatible with ours, we hope to see ways to reach and involve more people in building a healthy educational environment for women and girls," says Gregg.

Sarah Benton, executive director of OLLI at Penn State, also says a joint office space is critical for local non-profit groups.

"CASE is all about providing affordable, stable and accessible space for community nonprofits – and about the nonprofits collaborating with each other to better serve the whole community," Benton says.

Benton says moving into College Heights would allow OLLI to have a larger administration space that would accommodate its growth and use of office volunteers. She says it would also mean access to up to two classrooms that could be designed for specialized needs, such as an art studio, movement studio or a teaching kitchen. CASE would also have a conference room for board meetings.

"Being part of CASE would also encourage our members who volunteer in many non-profits throughout the community to serve other organizations who desperately need their time and expertise," Benton says.

Earlier this month, Penn State, CASE and the school district spoke to council regarding their plans for the building.

Council will hear from other parties with an interest in the future of the building, including the College Heights Neighborhood Association on May 5. Groups must register in advance to speak at the meeting.

Council will hold a work session May 12 to discuss the issue further. Then, on June 2, council will hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed sale and whether the borough should exercise its right to first refusal.

The general public will have a chance to speak about the issue May 12 and June 2.

Any additional discussion will happen on June 9. Borough council will make a final decision on June 16.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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