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Fate of State College Area High School Rests in the Hands of Voters

by on May 19, 2014 8:05 PM

The State College Area School Board held a news conference Monday night, making a final pitch for the high school renovation plan.

That appeal, asking voters to approve the $115 million project, came just hours before voters head to the polls Tuesday morning.

Board President Penni Fishbaine spoke to reporters just before Monday's regular board meeting. After weighing community input over two years with more than 150 public meetings, a survey of 7,000 residents, Fishbaine says, "the State College school board is proposing a long-term and fiscally responsible project which we believe is the community consensus."

The proposed project includes a combination of renovation and new construction at the two-school campus on Westerly Parkway.

The district also issued an email to students' parents this week as well as made an automated call to voters saying, "remember to vote at your regular polling place."

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. For more information on the election, click HERE.

At the start of Monday night's school board meeting, officials showed a video that focuses on the safety concerns at the campus on Westerly Parkway. Officials describe the two-building campus as unsafe. Students must cross two bus lanes and Westerly Parkway to get to different classes throughout the day and there are 93 doorways where students constantly go in and out that are not continually monitored.

"It creates a security issue that goes beyond traffic. It goes into the general ability to maintain a secure campus for our students," says Ed Poprik, director of physical plant.

Fishbaine says, “We need a more secure building.”

The board says simply renovating the existing buildings to bring them up to code would cost roughly $70 million.

Under the proposed plan, all core academic classes would be held in the South Building – reducing significantly the number of students who need to travel back and forth between buildings. The plan would also update electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems as well as make the campus compliant with the American Disabilities Act.

During Tuesday's Primary Election there will be a ballot available to all registered voters -- regardless of political party affiliation -- that features a referendum question asking if the district can take on $85 million in debt for a $115 million renovation to the State College Area High School. If approved the referendum would result in a real estate tax increase.

The referendum question will read as:

"Shall debt in the sum of ($85 million) for the purpose of financing new construction and renovations for the State College Area High School be authorized to be incurred as a debt approved by the electors?"

If passed, the resulting 7.2 percent tax increase will be determined based on a property's assessed value. The district calculated the percentage tax increase based on the 2013-2014 property tax rate of 38.75 mills, or $38.75 per $1,000 of assessed value.

For example, for a property with a $100,000 market value, the assessed value of the property would be $28,409 and the estimated annual tax would be $79 or $7 a month.

For a property with a $200,000 market value, the assessed value would be $63,920, and the estimated annual tax would be $178 or $15 a month.

The referendum tax would remain in effect until the debt for the high school is paid in full, which is an estimated 30 years.

The total project cost is estimated at $115 million with a 5.3 percent interest rate and a term of 30 years. The $30 million balance will be funded through the appropriation of a current tax.

Resident Mark Higgins, who has two children in the school district including one at State High, spoke at Monday's meeting encouraging residents to go to the polls Tuesday to support the referendum. Higgins says his sense from interacting with the community is that there is a significant amount of opposition to the referendum.

Outside the meeting, Higgins told StateCollege.com he believes the referendum would address safety issues, improve the quality of learning, and make the area more marketable to folks considering relocation to State College.

"If we want this region to grow we have to show we're committed to growth and improving quality of life," Higgins says.

In order for the referendum to pass, Joyce McKinley, director of the Centre County Elections and Voter Registration Department, says the majority of ballots cast need to be in the affirmative.

McKinley says there are roughly 71,000 registered voters in the school district. At the same time, more than 18,000 are students at Penn State with the majority out of town for summer break. Additionally, voter turnout is historically lower for the primary election compared to the general election in November.

If the referendum passes, officials would go further into the design process this summer with groundbreaking roughly one year from now. Construction would take roughly 30 months with a completion date in 2018.

Superintendent Bob O'Donnell says the district will be conducting exit polling Tuesday with volunteers from Penn State "to get a sense of what voters are thinking." If the referendum is unsuccessful, O'Donnell says the polling will help officials get "a better understanding of why." 

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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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