The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

December 19, 2013

Lewisburg directors OK $19G adviser for $35M idea

LEWISBURG — Before about 35 visitors and two Buffalo Valley Regional Police officers, the Lewisburg Area school board voted 7-1 Wednesday night to hire a financial adviser to guide the district on loan and bond issues for the upcoming high school project in Kelly Township.

Most of the 35 audience members, who flashed index-sized, bright orange cards in a show of solidarity against the high school project, also attended Tuesday night’s Lewisburg Borough Council meeting, during which Superintendent Mark DiRocco and board President Kathy Swope spoke.

It’s likely the heated nature of that meeting prompted the police presence Wednesday night. DiRocco said the school district did not request their presence.

The board voted to hire the PFM Group of Harrisburg, an independent financial consultant that works mostly with school districts, including others in the Valley, on capital projects.

PFM will be paid $19,500, which Managing Director Brad Remig said in a separate conversation with The Daily Item, is a one-time fee paid out of loan proceeds.

During his presentation to the board, Remig stopped short of guaranteeing a certain bond rate. Part of that lies with news Wednesday that the Federal Reserve will begin tapering its massive stimulus program aimed at boosting the U.S. economy.

As a result, the federal government will trim its $85 billion a month in bond purchases by $10 billion starting in January, and that could affect selling Lewisburg’s bond as well.

“The bond market has factored that in right now,” Remig said, but when asked if now is a good financial time for a project like the high school, he said, “It’s probably prudent to start looking for a bond in early 2014.”

Director Mary Howe was the lone nay vote, saying she “can’t in good conscience vote to spend taxpayer money” on an adviser that “would be beholden to the board although paid by the taxpayers.”

“The school board yet again is spending on a consultant,” she said, “this pattern of spending a lot of money on a lot of consultants.”

DiRocco replied that the consultant works for the board who represents the taxpayers and, by extension, the children and the community.

Typically quiet and lightly attended, the school board meeting, which was specially scheduled, was the second platform for Lewisburg residents organized against the high school project. Several gave straightforward but impassioned statements before and after the meeting, mainly against spending the estimated $30 million to $35 million to build the new high school.

Also cited were a lack of traffic impact studies, energy concerns, having enough teachers and economic and education deficits from moving the students out of the borough.

“The perception expressed is that there hasn’t been adequate involvement” from the community, resident Amanda Wooten said in a statement summarizing the feelings Wednesday night. “We’ll remember the attitude. And the approach will be remembered.”

Wooten also said she and many others of the group aren’t able to attend the regularly scheduled school board meetings or specially scheduled meetings about the high school, and urged the school board instead to conduct surveys and hold a referendum on the project.

“Hiring a consultant isn’t focusing on learning,” she said. “It’s focusing on a building.”

The repeated charge of the school board not involving the community enough and ignoring alternatives brought an emotional statement from Dr. Tera Unzicker-Fassero, a school board member.

“It’s frustrating to hear ‘You haven’t listened and you’re still not listening,’” she said.

Noting she served on a previous facility committee — and that some group members had as well — Unzicker-Fassero said sitting on the school board side is “a lot more than what meets the eye.”

She also noted the master facilities plan, which includes renovations to other Lewisburg schools as well as the high school project, was made in 2010 and shelved because of drastic cuts in state public education funding.

“The board has been quiet long enough,” she said. “I am insulted that people feel that way. I am tired of the attacks. I want to keep moving forward.

“The decision may not be liked, but the decision has been made,” she said. “I wish we could make everyone happen. Unfortunately, that is impossible.”

Email comments to esocha@dailyitem.com.

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