By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — Residents argued with Lewisburg Area School District officials for a hour at Tuesday night’s Borough Council meeting over a perceived lack of public input in what will become of the high school once a new facility is built in Kelly Township.
Before a capacity Borough Council crowd that continued to stream in past the 7 p.m. start time, Lewisburg Superintendent Mark DiRocco and school board President Kathy Swope also addressed council members’ concerns that they be part of a repurposing committee that will explore and review options for the existing high school.
Borough Council sent the district a letter last week asking to be on the committee.
DiRocco and Swope gave council members the project’s construction time line and schematic design plans and noted the repurposing committee’s first meeting will be Feb. 6.
Both said their intent, while not required of the school district, is to enable Lewisburg Borough to participate in determining what will be come of the current high school campus.
“We want to reuse the building so that it be an asset to the community,” DiRocco said.
Swope added that school board is “truly committed to ensuring the building is protected as a gateway to the community,” dismissing fears that the property is for sale to the highest bidder and looking at a deed restriction that the district get right of first refusal if a new owner ever sells the property.
Council members asked questions about zoning, maintaining a vacant building and even approaching Bucknell University for possible interest in buying the property at Market Street and Route 15.
But questions from the audience — at least 30 in attendance — underlined a feeling that the school district is marching ahead with a $32 million school campus without regard for citizens’ strong feeling to keep the high school downtown and within walking distance to most homes.
“Why did you wait three years to come to us with this?” asked Nada Gray, a borough resident and former council member.
While the repurposing committee had been solicited, Swope said it and other plans were shelved in 2011 after Gov. Tom Corbett’s first budget cut $900 million from public education funding.
There was nothing to convene the committee to do until now, she said.
“The perception is that the decision (about the high school) was made and the public participation was not necessary,” said Susan Warner-Mills, who also sits on the Lewisburg Neighborhoods Corp.
“Decisions are made and the public participation is just window dressing.”
Swope said she was “stunned at that” comment, noting the project time line was just made at the Nov. 14 meeting following a vote to move forward.
“That is not our intent,” Swope said. “Most school districts don’t even do this much. ... If this was just window dressing, why would we bother?”
Addressing DiRocco directly, Dan Defebbo said school officials were essentially soft talking citizens into moving to the Newman property, where the new high school will be in Kelly Township.
“Of course you’ll say ‘We’d never do that’ but (Lewisburg) will get stuck with the building.”
DiRocco also noted the Dec. 13 advertisement in local newspapers of a request for proposals for reusing the high school property effective fall 2016.
Proposals must be to DiRocco by Feb. 1.
That too was an issue among audience members who said there’s not enough time for anyone to collect a plan to submit.
The master facilities plan defines the repurposing committee as members of Borough Council, the borough’s planning commission, Lewisburg Downtown Partnership, Bull Run Neighborhood Committee, Bucknell, the Lewisburg High School Alumni Association, a Realtor, three district school teachers and an administrator and a teacher from the high school.