The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 24, 2014

FULL TEXT: Dr. Mark DiRocco's presentation regarding new high school


— Here is the text of a presentation made Thursday evening by Dr. Mark DiRocco, superintendent of the Lewisburg Area School District:

MISCONCEPTIONS AND FACTS REGARDING BUILDING A NEW HIGH SCHOOL

There have been several media postings regarding the Lewisburg Area High School Project including several articles, numerous ‘My Turn’ pieces, and letters to the editor.  It is important to provide the community with accurate information and correct misconceptions that may exist.  Below is the Superintendents response to information that has been presented by several authors over the past few weeks:

Misconception:  Instructional supply budgets are 20% less than district projections and our teachers have about one-fifth of what they need to purchase supplies.

Fact:  The four building allocation budgets have been trimmed by more than $100,000 over the past three years as we have reallocated resources.  However, $100,000 was added to the technology budget this past year to support the district’s digital conversion initiative and $50,000 was placed in a new account to assist with school security after the Sandy Hook Shooting.  We are reallocating our resources to align with our needs and educational goals.

The administrative team is not aware of any teacher lacking educational supplies for their classroom.  A budgetary reserve account is available for any classroom needs and we have not received any requests for additional supplies.

Misconception: We are unable to afford the financing of the new high school.

Fact: We can finance the new high school without increasing the budget.  The general operating budget currently contains 2.75 million dollars for debt service and capital projects.  Every scenario reviewed to date to finance the new high school is within this figure.

Misconception:  The district will max out its borrowing capacity if it issues a 35 million dollar bond.

Fact:  The district’s current borrowing capacity is in excess of 62 million dollars, which will allow the other phases of the School Board approved Master Facilities Plan to begin after the high school is built. The district’s debt payment needed to finance the new high school is already contained in the current budget.  The budget will not have to increase to take on the new debt.

Misconception:  Borrowing 35 million dollars over 25 years will actually cost us approximately 65 million, which we can’t afford.

Fact:  The district issued a 20.5 million dollar bond in 1996 that was projected to cost more than 35 million over 22 years.  Bonds are similar to home mortgages in that the total amount of payments over the years of the bonds is always much more than the principal originally borrowed.  There is nothing excessive regarding the current financing proposal.  Again, the new debt service payment can be made within our current budgeted numbers.

Misconception: The district is building an excessively large high school.

Fact: The size of the building is determined by program needs and must comply with square footage formulas established by the Pennsylvania Department of Education including student enrollment projections issued by the state.

The existing high school is 117,000 square feet and the new building will be approximately 180,000 square feet, which meets all state formula requirements for the current and projected population and the programs offered by the district.  The current building does not have appropriately sized classrooms for collaborative learning.  Classrooms in the new high school will be 120 square feet larger than the current classrooms, which are appropriately sized for modern education.  The current building lacks a competition gymnasium (events are held at the middle school), has a band room that was not built to accommodate the 142 member symphonic band, and has one art room that is completely inadequate among many other size deficiencies.  If the district would have chosen to renovate the current high school, it would have increased in size to 180,000 square feet.

Misconception: The district has incorrectly projected substantial growth in future student enrollments and has used skewed population data to determine the size of the new high school.

Fact: The district does not calculate the student enrollment projections for the plancon process. They are set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) based on live births.  We are required to use PDE’s student enrollment projections.  LASD currently enrolls 580 students in the high school, and the new high school will have a capacity of 672 students based on PDE projections.

Misconception: The relocation of the high school will increase transportation costs by 20%.

Fact:  At the present time, LASD has only 44 high school students that live in the borough who are not assigned to a bus. One additional bus will be needed to transport these students to the high school at a cost of approximately $32,000.  We will receive approximately $16,000 in state reimbursement resulting in an additional cost of $16,000 to the district.

The district budgeted $1.3 million for transportation this year.  However, when you factor in the budgeted transportation reimbursement of $667,042 from the PA Department of Education, the total budgeted cost is $666,123.  Adding one bus will increase the transportation budget by approximately 2.4%.

Misconception: Transportation to the Newman site as compared to the current high school is more inefficient, costly, and dangerous.

Fact:  We have already established the fact that transportation will increase by 2.4% because we will be transporting 44 more students than we do now.  However, the efficiency of a school bus is no less when traveling to the Newman site than the current high school.

The new high school site is a much safer site than the current high school location, which is a “high impact hazmat site” as identified by the Pennsylvania Office of Safe Schools.  The current high school is located just a few feet from Route 15, which is traveled by many vehicles each year containing toxic chemicals. We are one accident away from a major tragedy.  If the current high school site was an open field today, we doubt anyone would want to place a school at that location.

Misconception:  If 20 acres is sufficient for a new high school, why is LASD building on a 200 acre campus?

Fact: The Newman farm was purchased in the late 90’s.  The entire 205 acre farm was for sale as one parcel.  The district did not seek a 200 acre site.  The district purchased the land as the future site of the high school. We have no intention of developing all 200 acres, as a significant portion will be left as wetlands and natural areas for outdoor education.  Our plan anticipates that approximately 55 acres will be developed.  However, the site will provide for decades of growth as needed by the district and land acquisition will not be an issue as it has been in past decades. 

It is obvious that the current 7 acre site is not adequate for a high school site by today’s standards and does not have room for expansion and future growth.  

Misconception:  Co-use is already working for venues such as football and tennis.

Fact: The district does not have a co-use agreement with Bucknell or the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority.  We rent these facilities, we don’t share them, and both entities have been gracious in allowing us to use their venues. 

Our football team has not been able to play its complete five home game schedule for many years because Bucknell’s programs and activities often conflict with our league-established football schedule and we must secure other venues. Our football team has played home games at Mifflinburg, Milton, and Susquehanna University.  We even were relegated to hold our Homecoming game one year at Selinsgrove.  When our football team reaches the playoffs, we are not guaranteed use of the stadium for our home playoff games.

Misconception:  The auditors are warning against large expenditures and instead recommend that the district use any resources to get its operating budgets up to the levels projected in its own five-year plan.

Fact:  The auditors never made such a statement.  All of the statements attributed to the auditors were actually made by our district business manager. He wrote a management report in the audit that stated, “additional revenues must not be treated as a windfall to expand programs but as an opportunity to extend the time horizon of the five year plan.”  This quote was in reference to additional funds above fund balance that may occur after our annual audit.  He was recommending that these funds be put in reserve for one-time expenses instead of adding new staff or programs that will require on-going revenue to operate.

Misconception: LASD cut budgets and staff to transfer money to the capital reserve fund for the purpose of funding the new debt.

Fact: The capital reserve fund pays for capital expenses in the school district. The recent security upgrades to the buildings, replacement of the Middle School electrical system, roof replacements, etc. are funded from this account.  These things are paid for with ‘one time’ monies because they are ‘one time’ expenses.  However, teachers, supplies, etc. are recurring costs and must be funded by recurring revenue. Most of the monies that are placed in this account are from one time revenues, such as higher than expected delinquent tax collections.  We did not cut staff or programs to transfer money to reserve accounts.

Misconception: The current site and facility are adequate for the education of children in our community because the teacher is what is important, not the facility.

Fact: While we agree that a highly qualified, effective teacher is the single most important factor in a quality education, the facilities are also important.  In October of 2008, the Middles States Accreditation Team reviewed our high school.  Their report states, It has been observed that the school is fully occupied at the present time.  This limits the ability of administration to expand quality programs.  The infusion of technology, while valuable and needed, has further pressed the ability of the regular classroom teacher to utilize flexibility of instruction.  Currently, all athletic programs are conducted at various sites away from the high school.  This places additional demands on transportation and supervision.  Reliance on Bucknell for a football stadium, although a desirable site, often leaves Lewisburg seeking additional sites.  Serious consideration and plans must be made to provide an appropriate facility to meet the needs of expanding programs and meet the needs of students within the next decade.”

Misconception: The district failed to commission a traffic study prior to making a decision on the location of the new high school and the district must bear the cost of road improvements to intersections near the site. LASD has not included infrastructure costs (water and gas lines, etc.) in the estimated costs for the project.

Fact: Traffic studies are very expensive and have a limited lifespan, expiring within about two years.  If we had conducted the traffic study prior to the time we were ready to build, we would have risked having to burden the cost of repeating the study.

Kelly Township has provided the district with information on state and federal grants that we may be eligible to receive that would provide funds for traffic improvements in the event the state indicates such a need. The budget already includes the cost to bring all utilities onto the site.

Misconception: The hospital did a traffic study two years ago and was told they would be responsible for more than two million dollars in road improvements for just one intersection.  The district will have to make similar improvements when the new high school is built.

Fact: The traffic study is currently being conducted by ELA Associates out of State College and they have reviewed the hospital traffic study.  The hospital traffic study impacted state roads such as JPM Road and Hospital Drive with large AM and PM trips projected for the medical campus at peak travel times.  The new high school site is on a township road and will have significantly fewer AM and PM trips occurring at peak travel times in comparison to the hospital study.  The traffic study is expected to be completed within the next six weeks and it is anticipated that the impact to local traffic near the high school will be far less than the hospital study.

Misconception:  Taxes will increase to accommodate the additional costs for the maintenance of the new facility.

Fact:  There will be increased costs for a larger building, but that would have been the case regardless of the location of the school. LASD anticipates that it may also require an additional custodian for the school.  The utility cost for the current high school is $115,000 per year, which is 4/1000 (0.004) of our current budget.  It would appear that even with an increase, the maintenance impact on the budget would be minimal.

Misconception: The decision to build the high school was predetermined.

Fact:  The decision to build a new high school was made after several studies and community input venues including the following:

It is not rational to believe that the district would participate in such an extensive community input and professional consultant study process if it had made a predetermined decision.

CONCLUSION

The core reason for the Board’s decision to build a new high school in Kelly Township is based on the fact that the current seven acre high school site is not adequately sized for our current programs and has no room for growth in the future.  Spending millions of dollars to renovate and expand the current high school will only delay the inevitable need to build a new high school at a new site in the future. Financing and construction costs are at historic lows and it is an optimum time to build the new high school.

This decision is first and foremost about the future of our children.  Building a new high school in Kelly Township will allow the district and community to meet the educational needs of our students for many decades in the future.  The current site will not.

It is my recommendation that the district proceed with the current schedule to build the new high school in Kelly Township.

Mark D, DiRocco, Ph.D.

Superintendent