The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 4, 2014

My Turn: Voices deserve a public vote


For The Daily Item

— The Feb. 3 letter to the editor (“Have a Little Faith”) raises the issue of transparency and true community representation in the decision to build a new high school at Newman. Let’s examine the cause of the current crisis of faith in LASD leadership, which claims that a majority of citizens support building a new high school.

First, a direct quote from Superintendent Mark DiRocco at the Jan. 23 school board meeting: “The board purchased the [Newman] site at that time (the 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? Apparently this was a foregone conclusion, yet residents were led to believe that all options would be considered in 2009 and 2010, when a series of school facilities meetings was held. So it’s not surprising that those of us who participated in the meetings found LASD to be less receptive to options other than building on the Newman site.

The “majority” LASD cites, which is based upon those meetings, doesn’t constitute a vote of the taxpayers and citizens who will foot the bill for the district’s decisions. It is true that, in a public meeting that presented 15 different options for further study and allowed attendees to cast multiple votes, a majority of people wanted further study of building at Newman. But this doesn’t necessarily imply endorsement. The same tally also yielded “further study” votes of 50 percent for re-use of the current school, 38 percent for building at Newman, and 11 percent for other smart-growth locations.

Who attended these sessions?  According to the consultant’s own demographic account for the first two meetings, 85 percent held bachelors degrees or higher, and 90 percent were between the ages of 30 and 64. That is not a representative sample of the local electorate. What about those who don’t work the first shift, who live in retirement homes, who couldn’t get childcare, or who simply weren’t aware of the meetings because they didn’t have children in LASD or read the newspaper? Or who believed, quite reasonably, that these meetings were exploratory, and that an official vote would be held on a decision involving such a huge expenditure?

Following these public meetings, a petition of nearly 500 signatures of LASD residents protesting the Newman site was presented to the school board at the April 8, 2010, meeting. Half of the signatories lived outside of the borough. Yet the minutes from that school board meeting merely state that a petition was presented – nothing further. In fact, school board minutes from the April 8 and 22 (2010) meetings, both of which included comments from citizens who wish to renovate and expand the current school, are not included as part of LASD’s webpage concerning the master-planning process. 

The public input did have some effect, as the school board conceded that re-use of the building in town should be studied by an independent professional. 

The findings of that study, released in September 2010, showed that the existing high school could be renovated and expanded to the standards sought -- for less money than building new. This was significant new information, but LASD made very little effort to publicize it. Their public records of the meetings that followed the study include slides from the consultant but no additional information such as recordings or video. Citizen comments from those meetings are not reflected on the LASD master facilities plan webpage, which presents an edited rendition of both the process and the public response.

Once this new information was in hand, shouldn’t the public have had an opportunity to vote properly?

Faith must be continually earned. Elected leaders win office because voters have faith in their ability to do the right thing and carry out their job duties in a responsible and responsive way. Right now, the responsiveness piece is missing. Effective leaders welcome reasoned input from constituents, answer questions readily, and remain open to review of past decisions.

Many project factors have changed in the last three years. We have raised valid questions about facility sizing, costs, transportation, and tax ramifications. The true financial and educational implications of this expenditure must be clearly communicated to all LASD residents, who deserve a public vote.

Brian Auman, Erin Jablonski, Samantha Pearson, Christina M. Wallace on behalf of Downtown Dragons. Find Downtown Dragons on Facebook or at www.downtowndragons@wordpress.com.