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Voters Answer $85M Referendum Question with State High's Future Hanging in the Balance

by on May 20, 2014 3:02 PM

State College area voters who took to the polls Tuesday were faced with a big question:

Can the State College Area School District take on the debt of $85 million for a $115 million renovation and construction project at the State College Area High School, which would result in a tax increase?

Voters exiting the polling place at the State College Borough Building on South Allen Street gave mixed viewpoints on the referendum.

H. Frank Horner, a retired businessman, says he opposes the project in part because he fears the cost of the project will likely exceed officials' estimate.

"The taxpayers are going to have to pay for it," he says. "It's going to end up being twice that. Everything we build ends up being twice that."

Horner also says building a "Taj Mahal" for students is unnecessary and won't enhance the quality of education students' receive.

"We're putting this money into the building. It's not for the kids. I received an excellent education under primitive circumstances and I learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide and I can read and everything else needed to be educated," Horner says.

He also says the current education system seems to be failing as teens he hired as employees couldn't make change for customers. At the same time, he says a more modern facility won't enhance students' education.

"Every so many years kids are less educated. They can't perform the most simple tasks. They don't know basic information that the whole world used to know. They have no common sense," he says.

Horner's neighbor, Lillian Hutchinson, says she voted in support of the referendum.

"We need a good school for our children no matter what it costs," she says. "Our children need it."

Leslie Webb, a psychologist whose daughter recently graduated from State High, also voted for the referendum.

"My daughter went to State High and even then -- four or five years ago – I thought the conditions were getting to be deplorable," says Webb. "I can't imagine what the conditions are like now. This has to be done."

Anna Bahnfleth, who graduated from State High in 2012, also voted in support of the referendum. She remembers the music rooms and auditorium flooding during severe rainstorms and the temperature always being uncomfortable.

"Just going to State High you could see the conditions of the building deteriorating," she says. "It was way to hot in the spring and way too cold in the winter. I was never quite right."

Polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday. For more information, click HERE.

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 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.

Officials have also 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 cost roughly $70 million.

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.

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.

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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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