Lunch with Mimi | Penni Fishbaine: President State College Area School Board
As the newly elected president of the State College Area school board, Penni Fishbaine has a tough road ahead. First elected as a board member in 2009, she is tasked in her new role to open dialogue with the community on the school district’s plans for the high school renovation project as well as continuing negotiations with the teachers’ union on a contract. (Editor’s note: In January, both the district and teachers’ union agreed to accept a series of recommendations from a state-appointed fact-finder. The recommendations will become the basis of a new, four-year contract, retroactive to July 2011, for the teachers in the district.
Born in Altoona, Fishbaine moved to Columbus, Ohio, with her family when she was 17. She graduated in 1982 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with a bachelor of arts degree in speech communications with an emphasis on public relations. She moved to State College in 1985 after getting married. Her husband, Steve, has been practicing dentistry in the area for 28 years.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Fishbaine at Zola’s New World Bistro to discuss what her priorities are as president of the school board and what she hopes to accomplish.
Mimi: Increasingly the school board is more dominated by women than men. I’ve been here 62 years, and, over time, it’s the women who have become more visible in the leadership of the school board.
Penni: Yes, I agree.
Mimi: Now, here you are, the newest of that leadership. Your position is overseeing the board and the business of the school district. Recently, both on campus and in town, I get the feeling that governing boards are doing more than overseeing. Do you see that as a trend?
Penni: As president, one has to look ahead, plan meetings, know what’s coming up, be proactive, but I also see where we have board members doing a lot more research looking into other schools and how they do things.
Mimi: Six years ago, you were one of the more vocal activists in the back of the room when significant leadership of the school board was ousted. How is the current board different than that situation?
Penni: One thing is we’ve opened up all meetings to the public. They used to have the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meetings that were all private, and now we’ve opened them to the public.
Mimi: Do many in the public come?
Penni: We have some. Not very often. When it’s an important issue like the high school or communications about the high school, we’ve had a person or two show up.
Mimi: What in your leadership plan is the direction you’d like to take this board when it comes to the high school project?
Penni: If it’s going to get voter support, we have to be very good at educating and communicating with the community to get feedback and devise a plan. We have an architect and we’re also working with BrainSpaces Inc. Educational planner Amy Yurko is one of the presidents of that company. She came in and worked with students. She’s working with the teachers to devise not just where we want a high school but also what do we want in our learning spaces and how big we want those spaces. So, it’s more about our educational plan to work with twenty-first century learning and technology, and how do we get people not to look at math separate from science. It sounds very out there, but this is what other forward-looking high schools are doing. The difference this time from the last, in my opinion, is we’re going to referendum. It’s a vote.
Mimi: You have to because the state mandates it. But you can’t do it without a tax increase.
Penni: Right. We can increase taxes 1.7 percent — that’s for this year. We can also apply for an exception to raise taxes more — but the money must be used for Public Service Employee Retirement System (PSERS).
Mimi: Teachers are the core and the heart of how well we do. We’ve seen charter schools evolving, and they’re taking students away. How do we fix that?
Penni: Certainly in more urban areas we see the benefit of charter schools. I see the benefit here because we have some students that want a different choice. What we need to do is get better. We have to get better at becoming the school of choice, and we do it with our teachers who are all very highly respected.
Mimi: Most of us do better when we have an incentive. I was an entrepreneur because I had an incentive every day of my life to do better. How do you provide an incentive?
Penni: We have done something in our school district that’s very difficult, but done well, and that is we have saved for our Public Service Employee Retirement System. We have actually put money aside using a pay-forward strategy. We have $11 million in an account for when PSERS increases — this year by $7 million. We’re going to start paying that down while we get additional money to pay what is needed for pensions. We also have some money banked so that we can use that toward the PSERS jumps we’re going to have. There’s no way we can tax enough in one year to accommodate PSERS. Many more school districts are in worse shape than we are because we’ve done the pay-forward PSERS account for 4 to 5 years.
Mimi: But as it keeps jumping at a more rapid rate, you can’t keep up with it, just like the government.
Penni: Right. What we can do is try to save for those jumps.
Mimi: Didn’t they do that before?
Penni: Well, first of all, you weren’t facing Act 1. It came about in 2006. So 2007 was the first year of Act 1, and at that point the indexes were higher. You could get more in taxes. It was maybe 3.4, and now it’s 1.7. And we don’t have all the new businesses coming to town and the new home development. We were getting 3 to 4 percent in asset value. We’re not getting that. Now we’re getting 1 percent or less.
Mimi: So, when the housing industry took a drop as of 2008 — and it’s still probably hasn’t come back to what it was — your budget also took a hit from it.
Penni: Yeah, because we counted on that.
Mimi: I don’t think most people think about that.
Penni: It is property taxes, and we were getting 3 to 4 percent that just always came in because there was growth in the economy and people were moving here, but now it’s down. We can’t count on that money.
Mimi: Three years from now, what would you hope you would have accomplished?
Penni: I would hope we had a new high school. And when I say “new” I mean an updated facility of some kind that our students can learn and become more competitive in the global market. They’re getting a great education now, but it can improve.
Mimi: So, new high school. So, that means either new or remodeled? Which do you lean toward?
Penni: You’re going to think I’m being political, but I really could go either way that they can do it as long as we get something. It’s important to me that our students are not in buildings that are slowing down their creativity, and I don’t want to say that they’re deprived, but they do have heating issues and they don’t have air-conditioning. There are issues with the way our schools are set up. It’s a huge high school where people don’t always know each other. One of the situations I would want to have addressed by the communities is their willingness to support something like small learning communities. This is where we were with the 2009 district-wide master plan. There was an Ed-Spec committee and they came up with this idea where you could have math, science, English — all the main subjects in an area — allocate some space in the middle for meetings, and students could go to art, gym or PE, and music. It is sort of like teams in our middle schools where teachers and students collaborate.
Mimi: And it works?
Penni: It works. Students could say they may not want “teams” when they get to high school, but maybe we have to talk about the possibilities. You’re a teacher and you have 20 students coming in every period, but you don’t know what other teachers those students are going to afterward. You have a concern and you wanted to talk about what’s best for this particular kid.
Mimi: So, you’re talking more collaboration. Isn’t that an administrative issue?
Penni: Yes, and the way we function and determine how we plan this building. One of the guiding principles is adequacy. So, are our facilities and buildings adequate for the sort of program that we want to teach? Another idea might be safety. Right now we have multiple doors all over the schools where students come in and out. Is that the best situation?
Mimi: Well, these days, there’s more concern about safety than there used to be.
Penni: Another one might be facility condition. Are we looking at a facility where it may cost more to renovate than it might be to build new?
Mimi: We have to set priorities, though, because there are a lot of needs. How do you order priority?
Penni: That is tough. I want to see the elementary school redone, too. So, that all have equal opportunities.
Mimi: Up to speed in all of our facilities.
Penni: Yes, and that’s a big challenge because that really wasn’t addressed for a lot of years. When the district was doing really well financially we did not invest enough in our buildings, and now we are faced with a lot of buildings that need to have repairs and need to be renovated.
Mimi: You have repaired some. Easterly Parkway was repaired.
Penni: Yes, and then Gray’s Wood was built. We also have Ferguson Township and Mount Nittany Elementary School that were just done this year.
Mimi: When do you see the referendum happening?
Penni: The end of 2013, probably the beginning of 2014.
Mimi: In theory this sounds wonderful. But the whole question of getting down to business and fixing what you know is broken to some extent can’t be extended too many years longer without losing a lot of ground in the quality of our education.
Penni: Well, our end date was the end of 2013. We may extend it to 2014, but you’re right.
Mimi: So, how do we the people help you move forward?
Penni: Come to our meetings. I want people to understand what we are doing. We have to be able to say what our ideas are before we can do surveys. We don’t want to ask how much of an increase the public wants to pay on taxes. It is about improvements for education. You want them to know what they will get.
Mimi: We have a responsibility to provide the best, well-rounded education for our kids at all levels. So, there’s nothing more important, really, for a community like ours to vest lots of time and money.
Penni: I am so with you. I agree, and our community should be proud of our high school. And right now you can be proud of what the students do and what the teachers do, but not of the facilities.
Mimi: Well, you’re telling me we might not do anything to the facility for two years and that just doesn’t make sense.
Penni: It may take longer than that to get the plan. If you’re thinking you want to do it while students are in the high school … if we’re talking about building it on Westerly, that’s going to take even longer because you’re going to have students in classes while construction is taking place.
Mimi: You’re making me more frightened than I was when I started.
Penni: I’m sorry, but it is frightening. I worry about these things. So, that’s what we’re thinking. We say to people, “Are you okay with having the students and teachers in temporary conditions while construction is going on around them?” Now some people might say that’s fine. Some people might say, “No, I’d rather you move the building to another site.”
Mimi: I think you would be so much better off saying, “Here are the three recommendations that the board has reviewed and we put them in order of preference. You elected us. We’re telling you our point of view. Now we want to hear your feedback.” That would be far better than leaving an open book and never getting anyplace.
Penni: The high school is 40 years old. Renovating is needed. They’re old. They have antiquated systems. They don’t have adequate lighting in places. They have flooding. I don’t know if it’s cheaper to demolish and build new. So, I feel like we need the information from the architects and information from the community as far as what they’d like to see in terms of an educational plan. Once the educational plan is done, we can show some options. It’s this much to build on a new space, which might include an athletic facility, or maybe we have to wait and do phasing.
Mimi: What’s your biggest challenge as president?
Penni: Having the board reach consensus on certain items and get all the information they need to make decisions.
Mimi: Well, I wish you well. It’s got to be one of the tougher jobs in the area. So, God bless you for wanting to do the public service and I hope your leadership skills make it possible for you to reach your goals.
Penni: Thank you!