The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Letters

January 22, 2014

My Turn: A call for answers and representation

Editor’s Note: This is the last of five comments from the Downtown Dragons, a Lewisburg group whose members wish to see the high school remain in the borough. Other topics include school size, financing and the decision-making process.

The Lewisburg Area School District has decided to build a new high school. Public input urging reconsideration is endured and dismissed. As LASD notes, they’ve never been obligated to consult the public at any point.

LASD maintains it has run an exemplary and inclusive process. It has reached out to its most readily accessible audience. And looking at the plan proposed, it’s easy to see the appeal for many of the district’s more affluent residents. It’s harder to see how it balances the interests of all constituents, especially those on fixed incomes and those who must choose between engagement and getting by.  

Those who support public education and believe it should serve the public, broadly defined, see the current decision as both a threat to the continued delivery of quality public education and also a betrayal of public trust in terms of fiscal responsibility. Our district has an exemplary record of serving both high achievers and the most disadvantaged well. We want to preserve that.

How did we get here? According to the “History of the Facilities Plan” on the LASD website, planning has been under way since 2008. It has been overseen by a committee appointed by Dr. DiRocco. As a superintendent’s committee, it has not been subject to public oversight nor is it answerable to public concerns. The board has relied on the recommendations of these appointees, most of whom have strong LASD ties. The resulting project is shaped primarily by their aspirations with little tempering of other perspectives — especially from the elderly and the economically disadvantaged.

This group was a good planning soundboard but could not provide insight into many fundamental questions that needed to be addressed. Questions like: How large should the auditorium and gym be for this district, and how will the proposal impact our low-income students?  

Open public process, or predetermined outcome?  Newman proponents ask why people didn’t speak up earlier. In fact, people opposed to Newman did speak up. They participated in the public meetings and circulated a petition to keep a school in town, but their contributions were minimized or disregarded. For example, board minutes concerning the petition submission of almost 500 signatures did not note either the intent of the petition or where the signers were from (more than 200 from East Buffalo Township, the rest from all the other district municipalities).

At that time, the message from LASD was that the master facility plan including a school at Newman had been approved, but the “final vote” to move forward with the high school had not yet been taken. Many citizens took this to mean there would be a public referendum. Instead, a final vote by board members took place the week after the last school board election. Then LASD shifted its messaging, stating the decision had been made three years before and planning has continued without interruption. We note that any such planning has been conducted very quietly.

The board says it has studied the issue exhaustively and is done with it. But when members regularly mischaracterize results of the feasibility study, it’s unclear whether they have studied the issue as comprehensively as they claim. Admittedly, the information presented by the consultants and available on the district website is very hard to follow. But shouldn’t we all understand it before moving forward?

So what do we want?

The whole community must be clearly informed of the true costs and consequent impacts on the delivery of educational services and on the tax structure. We must understand the long-term economic results of financing decisions, infrastructure improvements, lost collaborative opportunities, and less-efficient construction choices that ignore renovation and right-sizing. Why pay more for the building, roads, sewers, and the loan itself than we would renovating in town on a more reasonable schedule? Why do many assume that we have money to build athletics fields when they are not included in the plans? Why are we building a school that is oversized for even the most generous interpretation of anticipated future growth?

The district should seek an accurate assessment of popular opinion. We need a vote, or an independently commissioned survey. If informed public opinion supports the Newman site, we will support the outcome.

We appreciate the high quality of education in LASD. Fully considered choices, backed by a true majority of taxpayers, will ensure our tradition of excellence continues.

Samantha Pearson is a mother, designer and planner who lives in Lewisburg Borough. Christina Masciere Wallace is a mother, writer and editor who lives in Kelly Township. Visit Downtown Dragons on Facebook or at downtowndragons@wordpress.com.

 

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