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State College School Officials Don't Have 'Plan B' if Referendum Fails

by on May 16, 2014 6:00 AM

Despite claims the current campus is unsafe, the State College Area School District doesn't have a back-up plan when it comes to the $85 million referendum the district is asking voters to support May 20.

During the 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.

As part of the district's efforts to garner support for the referendum, officials have released videos on YouTube that focus on the poor conditions at the campus on Westerly Parkway. In the film, school officials, teachers and staff highlight issues from mold to flooding to outdated plumbing, electrical and heating, cooling and ventilation systems.

Officials also describe the two-building campus as unsafe as 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.

Still, if voters reject the referendum, school officials do not have a concrete alternative plan in place to address safety concerns nor a plan in terms of what repairs will be addressed, when they will be addressed, or how the district will cover the cost, according to district Spokesperson Julie Miller.

Miller says right now the focus for the school board and administrators is to see that the referendum does win voter approval in order to execute a combination of renovations and new construction at the campus.

"It's really going to depend on what the numbers look like on Tuesday and I think that's going to guide the board discussion more than anything," Miller says. "Until there's a definitive answer nobody's going to turn to that plan B."

Under the 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.

School officials are betting that voters will support their plan, which was created after a slew of community outreach efforts to obtain residents' feedback.

"Hands down the goal is to move that project forward," Miller says. "The goal and the work that the board has put in over the past few years is staggering. ... The board is unanimously behind this because they recognize that something needs to be done with this facility."

If the measure fails, but was close to approval, Miller says it's possible the board could decide to ask the referendum question again during the general election in November.

"In the event that it is a fairly lopsided failed referendum, then I think the conversation will probably change," Miller 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 is clearly unsupported by voters and the board decides not to place the question on the ballot again in November, Miller says the next step would be to consult with Poprik about what issues need to be addressed immediately at the high school.

"We will continue to do the very best we can do to mitigate things," Miller says.

Regardless, Miller says students are not in any danger at the high school under its current conditions. More natural light and better ventilation would benefit the students, she says, but issues like mold are addressed on a continual basis.

"Is it ideal? No. Are there concerns where we have actual health concerns? No," Miller says. "We have not run into a situation where students are being routinely exposed to something that is dangerous."

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.

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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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