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VOTER APPROVED: State High Renovation Project Wins Overwhelming Support

by on May 20, 2014 10:56 PM

UPDATED at 12:04 a.m. Wednesday

No one was sure quite what to expect when voters went to the polls in Tuesday's primary election.

But it wasn't even close.

Voters in the State College Area School District overwhelmingly supported a massive renovation and expansion project at State High.

With all 90 precincts reporting, including in State College Borough, Harris Township, Ferguson Township, Patton Township, Halfmoon Township and a portion of Benner Township, voters supported the ballot referendum by nearly a three to one margin. The measure received 11,121 yes votes with only 3,975 no votes. That equates to roughly 73 percent of 15,096 votes cast in support of the referendum.

Superintendent Bob O'Donnell says the results indicate voters support the district's years long process which included significant outreach to the community before developing a plan to pursue.

"The response is that the voters showed confidence in our process and obviously we're very appreciative of the response by the community and we have a lot of work ahead of us," says O'Donnell. "Now we have the opportunity to move forward with this proposal and execute this plan."

By supporting the referendum voters agreed to foot the bill through a tax increase.

There are roughly 71,000 registered voters in the school district. Voter turnout is historically lower for the primary election compared to the general election in November.

Election results remain unofficial until certified by the Board of Elections.

O'Donnell says he went into Tuesday anxious about the vote and says the overwhelming support of the referendum was unexpected.

"You work for multiple years with a goal in mind, you follow a process you believe in, and hope for the best, but nearly 3 to 1 support wasn't the expectation...that's beyond what I expected and it makes me feel very happy that the community showed support for what came out of the process," says O'Donnell.

O'Donnell says Tuesday's vote is the result of more than a decade of work to reach a plan to improve the high school campys.

"There were a lot of people over the past 10 to 12 years who've worked on trying to figure out the best direction for this campus. I've only been in town for three years and I've had an opportunity to work with our board and community and use the wisdom that has been gained over time ... and we've been able to obviously use that thinking to help move the process forward," says O'Donnell.

Officials are expected to move forward with the design process this summer with groundbreaking roughly one year from now. Construction will take roughly 30 months with a completion date in 2018.

The proposed project includes a combination of renovation and new construction at the two-school campus on Westerly Parkway. Under the plan, all core academic classes will be held in the South Building – reducing frequency students who need to travel back and forth between buildings.

The renovations also include updates to electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems and will make the campus compliant with the American Disabilities Act.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," O'Donnell says.

Officials have described 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.

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

Under the approved referendum, 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 will 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.

In other election news, Centre County residents supported Tom Wolf of York County as the Democrat's candidate for governor in the November General Election. He will go up against Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who is seeking a second term.

Wolf earned 5,623 votes in Centre County. He previously served as the state's secretary of revenue and is CEO of WOLF, a kitchen cabinet supplier.

Centre County voters also supported Mark Critz of Cambria County as the Democrat candidate for lieutenant governor with 3,102 votes. However, Michael Stack III easily won the statewide race, picking up nearly 47% of the vote in the five-candidate race. Lt. Governor Jim Cawley, a Republican, is seeking another term.

In the 5th Congressional District, Kerith Strano Taylor, of Jefferson County beat out Democrat Thomas Tarantella, of Clinton County, winning more than 54% of the vote in the district. U.S. Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, a Republican, is seeking another term.

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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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