The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 27, 2014

FULL TEXT: Downtown Dragons response in high school debate


Editor's Note: The following is the complete text of a letter to the editor submitted to The Daily Item on Monday by members of the Downtown Dragons, a community group in Lewisburg, in response to a presentation by Lewisburg Area School District Superintendent Mark DiRocco during a public meeting on Thursday. The complete text of Dr. DiRocco's presentation can by viewed by Clicking Here.

To the editor:

Downtown Dragons appreciates community discussion of the high school issue in the media, online, and in public meetings.

In the Jan. 24 edition of the Daily Item, Superintendent Mark DiRocco publicly stated that we have a right to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. We agree. However, his Jan. 23 presentation entitled “Misconceptions and Facts” contains significant misrepresentations of our own statements, which we address here. The numbered misconceptions come directly from his presentation, which is currently posted on the LASD home page.

Misconception No. 1: “Instructional supply budgets are 20 percent less than district projections and our teachers have about one-fifth of what they need to purchase supplies”.

Response: Actual quote from our Jan. 19 column: “Some instructional supply budgets are more than 20 percent less than the district’s projections, according to its own five-year financial planning document…our teachers have about one-fifth less than what they need.”

We applaud the Green Dragon Foundation, which provides many instructional supplies, as well as money for field trips and the like, through private donations from concerned citizens.

Misconception No. 2: “We are unable to afford the financing of the new high school.”

Response: The chart accompanying this point in Dr. DiRocco’s presentation shows how money transferred into the capital reserve fund is now being used for annual debt service payments. That still does not address the fact that operating budgets are still low and teachers are not being replaced.

The key point is that this illustration shows that we are maxing out our debt service capacity. We will have to either take on additional debt to make near-term payments (the route of capitalized interest being rolled into the initial bond issue), or draw down the capital reserve budget. (Jan. 19 column)

Misconception No. 3: “The district will max out its borrowing capacity if it issues a $35 million bond.”

Response: We did not say the district would max out its “borrowing” capacity. The Jan. 19 column said “debt capacity.” We acknowledge that we should have said “debt service capacity.”

Approximately $2.7 million in debt service is the upper limit LASD has used in all of its presented financing options.  

http://intranet.dragon.k12.pa.us/boardinfo/TABS/010914/Tab7.pdf

Misconception No. 4: “Borrowing $35 million over 25 years will actually cost us approximately $65 million, which we can’t afford.”

Response: Of course there is interest on a loan, but the amount of interest paid over the life of a loan varies based on different starting points: borrowing less to start with, changing the term, or adjusting the interest rate all alter the ultimate cost of the money. The point from the Jan. 19 column is that the $35 million would cost taxpayers less if LASD were not funding capitalized interest.

Misconception No. 5: “The district is building an excessively large high school.”

Response: Our space calculations are based on actual data. http://www.peterli.com/spm/pdfs/SchoolConstructionReport2013.pdf

According to the district-commissioned feasibility study, that much square footage could be accommodated on the current site.

If the band and choir alone require 30,000 square feet, as Dr. DiRocco stated in the Jan. 23 school board meeting, we are not arguing. We’re big fans of LASD’s nationally recognized music program. And we have no wish to deprive our student-athletes of needed indoor space – which could be built at the current high school, according to page 37 of the Feasibility Study Update from Sept. 9, 2010 (http://www.lasd.us/page/2560).

Misconception No. 6: “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.”

Response: In our Jan. 20 column, we made no allegation that LASD used skewed population data.

LASD’s own document, the 5-year financial planning document released in April 2008, showed the district having 2,008 enrolled students by 2013-2014 (see page 19 of http://www.lasd.us/sites/www.lasd.new.rschooltoday.com/files/files/5_Year_Plan-1.pdf). According to a handout at the Jan. 23 school board meeting, current LASD enrollment is 1,881 for grades K-12.

Misconception No. 7: “The relocation of the high school will increase transportation costs by 20 percent.”

Response: The actual language in the Jan. 20 column is "Busing needs for high-schoolers will increase by about 20 percent." Dr. DiRocco's presentation only considers new busing needs for students who live in the Borough. (http://downtowndragons.wordpress.com/resources-and-links/walkability/)

Misconception No. 8: “Transportation to the Newman site as compared to the current high school is more inefficient, costly and dangerous.”

 Response: The average student will be traveling 30 percent farther to get to the Newman site  ( http://downtowndragons.wordpress.com/resources-and-links/location-location-location/), which is certainly more inefficient and costly than the current site. In most situations, LASD has wisely not relied on state funding in budget assumptions. If the state were to reduce or cut reimbursements for busing -- which is possible, given current economic and political realities and the fact that the state is not legally required to provide bus service for students -- taxpayers would be saddled with the true cost of transportation to all four of our schools.

Regarding danger: Actuarial data on young drivers, crash data, and fatalities tell us teenagers are at their greatest risk in a car. The Newman school location will guarantee more teens, driving greater distances, on higher-speed roads.  (Young Drivers Reference:  http://downtowndragons.wordpress.com/resources-and-links/young-drivers-and-high-school-site-selection/) Given that traffic accidents in our area are far more likely than a hazmat emergency near the current school, we stand by our concerns over the safety of our teen drivers.

Misconception No. 9: “If 20 acres is sufficient for a new high school, why is LASD building on a 200-acre campus?”

Response: This is a valid question, not a misconception. We note that LASD’s own District-Wide Facility Study demonstrated placing a modern, state of the art high school on the current site and showed it to be both feasible and more economical (LASD Master Facilities Plan Update from Sept. 9, 2010, pg. 37 http://www.lasd.us/page/2561 ). We have already pointed out that additional outdoor athletics facilities could be interspersed throughout the community. (Jan. 22 column)

But let’s look at upkeep of the Newman site. Dr. DiRocco states that about 55 acres of the Newman property will be developed, yet the current site plan shows approximately 125 acres developed in formal landscape, grass, access roads, pathways, athletic fields, parking and stormwater management areas – all requiring some form of maintenance (mowing, snow removal, weed control, fertilizer, aeration, pest control and specialized turf-grass management).  The remainder of the site, slated as wetlands and natural areas, may be lower maintenance, but they are not maintenance free. Traditional school maintenance personnel would likely require additional training in the invasive plant control and forest management this land will require. 

Misconception No. 10: “Co-use is already working for venues such as football and tennis.”

Response: Here, Dr. DiRocco chose to focus on the fact that LASD pays fees for those arrangements. Our Jan. 22 column did not infer that co-use projects are free of charge to LASD. It’s common knowledge that LASD rents stadium use from Bucknell and courts from the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority. This does not diminish our point regarding the advantages of co-use. We propose a continuation and expansion of partnerships to provide the greatest return on investment of limited resources. We suggest building athletics fields in partnership arrangements for best utilization by student athletes and the community. Obviously, these arrangements would not be free for LASD, which will need to contribute to construction and maintenance, but they would be far less expensive than building and maintaining independent facilities.

Many supporters of the new high school seem to be under the impression that new outdoor athletic facilities and a stadium will be constructed with the new school. That is not the case. There is no stadium in the current plan. There are no tennis courts in the current plan.  For the foreseeable future, logistics, travel and supervision to and from athletics activities will actually be made worse by the move to the Newman site. 

Misconception No. 11: “The auditors are warning against large expenditures and instead recommend that the district use any resources to get its operating budget up to the levels projected in its own five-year plan.”

Response: The author said “auditors” in the Jan. 19 column after she referred to the audit report. We concede the error in attribution but stand by this point and note that Dr. DiRocco did not address the other statements drawn from audit reports.

Misconception No. 12: “LASD cut budgets and staff to transfer money to the capital reserve fund for the purpose of funding the new debt.”

Response: In the Jan. 19 column, we never said LASD cut budgets to put money in the capital reserve fund. We said this happened in the same year. Following this, the author noted that LASD continued to put money in capital reserve even though it was not restoring budgets.

Misconception No. 13: “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.”

Response: We have never said, anywhere, that the current site in its current condition is adequate for education. We said it needs to be improved and expanded - which LASD’s own consultant said could be done for 10 percent less than building at Newman, before factoring in road infrastructure. (Jan 21. column)

The quote from the Middle States Accreditation Report says that the school needs to expand. This is possible in town, according to the feasibility study, which placed 177,000 square feet on the existing site. The feasibility study also noted that having athletics programs in various places puts strains on transportation and supervision. The current plan for Newman only includes a single physical education field.  Separate work is being done now to try to get two other fields into place, but it is taking longer than anticipated. There is apparently no funding available for the other fields for the foreseeable future.  

Misconception No. 14: “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.”

Response: We never said LASD “failed” to do a traffic study. We said it only recently started a traffic study, and that the true cost of infrastructure work is not yet known. The actual quote from the Jan. 20 column: “LASD only recently began its traffic study, yet it says that all infrastructure work is included in the $35 million tab.”

The district did not include an estimate of or allowance for likely traffic impact costs in their feasibility study, effectively dismissing one of the major cost advantages of the in town site. While there may be some grant funds available, understanding the scale of those costs is important in making any decision.

Misconception No. 15: “The hospital did a traffic study two years ago and was told they would be responsible for more than $2 million in road improvements for just one intersection. The district will have to make similar improvements when the new high school is built.”

Response: It is not reasonable to think that roads adjacent to Newman Road will not require improvement. Anyone who lives in Kelly Township can tell you how busy Airport Road, William Penn Drive, Hospital Drive and JPM Road are at any given time of the day. The campus will impact state roads, with intersection consequences at Colonel John Kelly, Hospital Drive, William Penn Drive, Airport Road and Route 192, not to mention Route 15. Only the results of the pending traffic study will answer questions surrounding necessary roadwork. (Jan. 20 column)

Misconception No. 16: “Taxes will increase to accommodate the additional costs for the maintenance of the new facility.”

Response: Nowhere have we singled out facility maintenance as the reason for future tax increases, so we’re not sure why LASD is singling this out for rebuttal. But surely we can all agree that our taxes will go up, no matter whether we renovate and expand the current high school or build new. There’s no getting around this.

Misconception No. 17: “The decision to build the high school was predetermined.”

Response: In his response to Misconception No. 9, Dr. DiRocco states as a fact that the district purchased the Newman land as the future site of the high school. If so, then renovation and expansion of the existing school was off the table from the beginning.

Dr. DiRocco himself provided further evidence of this near the end of his presentation at the Jan. 23 school board meeting. We quote from the audio recording:

"The board purchased the [Newman] site at that time [late 90s] with the understanding that that would be the site for the new high school.  And even when we renovated back in 1998... that this was to be the last renovation for the current high school and the next time we did something we would build new at Newman.  That was the understanding.  Now, I understand there was no vote on that or nothing official, but that was the understanding."

The understanding of whom? And if this is indeed the case, why did LASD ever give the public the impression that it would consider renovating and expanding the high school?

Finally, Dr. DiRocco understandably did not have adequate preparation time to address the Jan. 23 column in which we ask for a true picture of voter opinion. A show of hands at the Jan. 23 school board meeting does not constitute evidence of a majority of public opinion.

There are many people in the district other than those who were at that meeting. And as Dr. DiRocco has stated, we all have the right to our opinion. We appreciate the opportunity to clarify and correct the above points that were made in Dr. DiRocco’s presentation. We also appreciate his offer to discuss or hold further dialogue. We would welcome such an opportunity. 

We respectfully restate our belief that the true interest of the public will be served by holding a referendum.   

Sincerely,

Brian Auman

Erin Jablonski

Mike Molesevich

Samantha Pearson

Christina Wallace

On behalf of Downtown Dragons