State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Decision Time Approaches for High School Referendum

by and on March 02, 2014 1:45 PM

On May 20, voters in the State College Area School District will have the opportunity to decide on the plan for the future of State College Area High School.

The State College High School Project will be put to a referendum of the community.

If the referendum is passed, the project will move forward. If it is rejected by voters, the process will begin anew.

In the interest of providing voters as much information as possible about the proposed project, the SCASD School Board and Superintendent Robert O'Donnell have been holding numerous information sessions and public discussions of the project. These sessions include a look at the process that was used to arrive at the final proposal.

O'Donnell recently spoke to the Rotary Club of downtown State College.

"We want people to know what the project is, and what it isn't and why our board made the decision it made," said O'Donnell.

The process began with a review of information from the 2005-2007 high school project plan. The 2009 District Wide Facility Master Plan was also included in the initial stage.

Following due diligence, the board arrived at six potential solutions to meet the needs of the District's high school. In brief they included:

  • All new high school on both sides of Westerly Parkway, estimated to cost $135 to $142 million
  • Part new construction part renovation with a connection across Westerly Parkway, $112 to $118 million.
  • Renovate in place, $65 to $68 million
  • Core academics placed on one side of Westerly Parkway, $112 to $117 million.
  • A new site, new construction, $121 to 127 million.
  • Two sites, two schools, $154 to 162 million.

“We sought the most cost-effective solutions that guaranteed a robust educational program,” said O’Donnell. “We were looking for quality design work and a very competitive cost per square foot. We don’t want to build facilities that are too expensive and force us to cut programs.”

A comprehensive survey of the community provided a clear picture of the kind of high school that residents want to see built.

Amber Cistaro Concepcion, vice president of the State College School Board, said the board focus on community wishes was key to the project.

“This has been a community-driven process,” she stated. “We built upon the work of the past, but the survey we had done was key. That's why we're on Westerly Parkway. The community was clear they wanted it there. We only moved forward with concepts supported by a majority of the community.”

As one the largest school districts in Pennsylvania, the high school serves about 2,300 students. Over the course of a 50-year life expectancy for the building, the new facility will serve thousands of students.

The survey revealed that among the top concerns was student safety and security. There are currently 92 doors into the high school. Securing them has been, and remains, a high priority.

Together with community advisory committees, the school board and staff toured schools in Chambersburg, York, Lancaster, and elsewhere in the state to see how other districts dealt with challenges similar to those facing the SCASD.

"We looked for the lowest cost per square foot that would allow the continuance of the school's many student programs," said O'Donnell.

To best meet the need for cost containment while providing a safe and supportive educational environment, the various options were narrowed to three.

Working with the architect and educational planner, the district decided to go with the core academics plan, with academic programs delivered on one side of Westerly Parkway.

"Sixty eight percent of people surveyed were opposed to the renovate in place option," noted O'Donnell. "That would leave us with students crossing the street. And we'd have a 1950's design for $70 million."

The referendum will ask voters to approve $85 million in new debt. The entire project will include $10 million in capital reserves, and $20 million in non-referendum debt. No state reimbursements are forthcoming.

The project is a long-term solution for all students in grades 9-12. It will consolidate all academic spaces on the south side of Westerly Parkway, using a combination of renovation and new construction.

The natatorium and gymnasiums in the High School North Building will be retained.

To pay for the project a referendum tax will be phased in over several years. The estimated annual cost to individual taxpayers is 2.7 mills or seven percent of current tax bills. Taxpayers with properties valued at $250,000 will see an increase of $16 per month in taxes.

"We are working to get a higher turnout (for the referendum vote) for a more accurate representation of the community as a whole," stated O'Donnell.

O'Donnell said he understands the various concerns expressed by different segments of the community.

"Costs are a concern, no question," he said. "And some who wanted two schools should know that the staffing costs, with the same programs, would increase by $2 million" he said. "We wanted flexibility and choice for students, while limiting costs. That is best achieved on one side of Westerly Parkway."

Click HERE For more information on the State College High School Project.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Harry is a correspondent for the Gazette.
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