The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 26, 2014

A debate worth having

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— During the past week, Lewisburg’s school leadership took another turn in the spotlight for wanting to build a new high school some place other than the claustrophobic seven acres it now occupies downtown, next to busy Route 15.

We’ll skip the details. Readers should be swimming in details from a group called the Downtown Dragons, who wrote a series of “my turn” columns that appeared in the Daily Item last week.

In the interest of some disclosure, a member of the Lewisburg school board happens to work here as a valued member of the newspaper’s management team. This apparently led to a possible skepticism within the DD crowd that The Daily Item would be receptive.

On the DD’s web-blog-Facebook, the Daily Item had been characterized as “a dedicated mouthpiece for the district” which “toes the line of the district’s messaging strategy and minimizes or dismisses the opposition” with “troubling ways” and “ambiguous statements” not to mention a “simultaneous weak and infuriating” editorial.

We invited a DD delegation to chat with the editorial board, then needlessly confessed our possible link to board membership and published about 3,500 words throughout the week in which the DDs presented questions about relocating to a new high school, focusing on cost, scale, safety, preservation and alternatives.

It was a five-day lead-in to a public school board session Thursday night.

The back story here is that Lewisburg Area School District had spent oodles of time developing a high school expansion plan and had decided on a much bigger footprint — 63,000 additional square feet — a short distance from the borough on former farmland in Kelly Township. The board was busy making it happen on some kind of reimbursement timetable, no longer inviting diverging points of view.

The Downtown Dragons requested a forum. The Daily Item obliged.

It seemed appropriate to air and amplify the dissenting viewpoints — and so said a number of people, including some who thoroughly disagree with the DDs and who were ultimately unmoved by their arguments.

I would have been surprised if late-breaking viewpoints had reversed the course of events.

The public land planning process for all kinds of projects generally includes a nod to public engagement.

Some public hearings are a check off on a clipboard, routinely wedged into agendas when it is too early to know what is happening or too late to stop it.

Ordinary people gets their say when everything is either unsettled, which devalues the testimony as speculative, or after huge sums have been swallowed by studies, applications and site development, which devalues the testimony as obstructionist.

The process is intimidating. Which citizen do you want to appear to be in a public forum — uninformed or wasteful?

The Lewisburg school district’s public engagement process — the opportunities for the public to become informed, to register their reaction and to explore analysis and conclusion — has been exceptional for this project. It may not have been enough for some, but it seemed significantly better than others.

I attended Lewisburg school board’s meeting Thursday night to see how this story would turn out. The turnout was small. It was a cold night and something more entertaining was happening in the gym.

Three Downtown Dragons successively made individual three-minute appeals, Superintendent Mark DiRocco took to the podium with a half-hour PowerPoint to explore and reply to Downtown Dragon arguments in turn. He had home court advantage, depth of knowledge from living this project for six years and admirable presentation skills.

I have been in that high school, once every year. The first time, I thought I was in a special little classroom for exceptional learners, possibly an advanced placement seminar. Nope. It was just the normal itty-bitty Lewisburg classroom.

The district evidently needs space, which is not readily available downtown. After last week, this still looks like one of those times when the chosen solution, Kelly Township, addresses the problem correctly.

The public now has more details explaining that, thanks to both Superintendent Di Rocco and the Downtown Dragons. Their exchange was a good job by all and a valuable public service.

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News