The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 10, 2013

Secrecy of Lewisburg's planning process

— The headline on the recent story about the proposed new Lewisburg high school prompts skeptical thought;  “Directors to (Lewisburg burough) council: Don’t worry,” you have written. But there are very good reasons for being apprehensive about the privacy of the directors’ planning process, in this instance their failure to consult or even notify the borough council about what they envision as the future of the present high school building if and when it is abandoned in favor of a new one.

The change the school board is planning has immense and widespread consequences in the area. Yet the people of the area have scarcely been consulted about their needs and wants. They have been invited to show up at school board meetings, but their messages have been limited to three minutes — hardly time for fact-gathering, much less discussion.

Several years ago a planning process occurred here that offers an instructive contrast: the generation of the Union County Comprehensive Plan. It began with a series of meetings to which anyone concerned was invited and at which there was ample opportunity to hear expert thinking and to register one’s own views and suggestions. Then provisional drafts were submitted repeatedly by professional consultants for examination and revision before a final plan emerged. No one was left out, and the result was widely accepted, indeed, even praised. One would think the school board might have gone a similar route, but it has not done so.

A good many questions are left dangling — or have been settled by the school board on the apparent assumption that they think and speak for all. The location outside the borough has much less than universal support, along with the consequent necessity of bussing all students to school, some for quite lengthy hauls. That the need for an elaborate sports complex as part of a new secondary education establishment is a pressing one has come in serious question. An opportunity to build a “green” building with all its advantages in a more healthful atmosphere for students and, in the long run also decreased operational costs, seems to be being entirely missed. The many deep and lasting impacts on the community’s way of living will go largely unexamined.  Because the board has put itself in a funding position that renders a bond issue unnecessary, and also the inevitable prior public discussion, there will almost certainly be no participatory examination of alternative possibilities.  We shall be handed an arrangement settled without our participation and that will be with us for many decades to come.

As a former teacher, I am well aware of how well filled the world is with ideas about how education should be offered and pursued, many of them impracticable or even foolish. And I am aware why school directors would wish to shield themselves and the time they generously volunteer from such dead ends. But there are ways of bringing the community into participation in planning that do manage to avoid such risks. I strongly wish the Lewisburg school board had sought and found such a way. It would be fine to  be totally enthusiastic about the signal accomplishments of the Lewisburg school system.

Neal Woodruff, of Lewisburg, served for 15 years on the Union County Planning Commission.