Ex-administrator critical of Penn-Trafford plan

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 7:38 p.m.

A former district administrator on Tuesday questioned Penn-Trafford school board's plan for a projected $32 million high school renovation slated to begin in June 2014.

Harry Smith, retired assistant superintendent, spoke at a school board meeting, asking officials why they're moving ahead with the project.

“The high school was renovated less than 20 years ago,” Smith said. “Since the high school is the newest building in the district … why are you moving ahead with a $32 million project without state reimbursement?”

State government has put a moratorium on Department of Education PlanCon funding, money funneled to school districts for construction.

That money generally amounts to between 25 percent and 30 percent of what the state deems the project's educational value, Director Toni Ising said.

In Penn-Trafford's case, that could amount to $8 million toward the high school project.

“Are you willing to gamble … that the state will eventually provide their share of the funding?” Smith asked the board.

PlanCon funds are not guaranteed, and indicators forecast that money will not be available in the future, board President P. Jay Tray said.

“We're working at it as best we can,” Tray said. “We're pulling things together to make sure we have a very valid long-range plan and the least painful for local taxpayers as possible.”

Smith asked about the complete plan for renovating district buildings, pointing out that other schools are older and require renovations that could cost taxpayers.

“Before you renovate the high school, a long-term building project needs to be identified and approved,” Smith said. “The high school should be moved to the back of the plan. … Why rush to fund the $32 million project? What is your long-term plan?”

He urged officials to focus on the oldest buildings — McCullough Elementary and Penn Middle School.

“If you start at the high school, your best school, you leave no money for the other projects,” Smith said.

The 41-year-old high school on Route 130 in Penn Township was last renovated in 1996. The proposed project would upgrade heating and ventilation systems, science labs, cafeteria equipment and parking spaces.

Director Dallas Leonard said the high school was the practical place to start because money spent there would be “well invested.”

“There are problems in other buildings,” Leonard said. “There's nothing (that has) been overlooked, but there's never enough money for everything.”

The district faces lagging enrollment — attendance dropped this year to 4,045 from 4,101 last year — and an aging population.

Demographics are “making a big shift,” Leonard said.

“I personally wouldn't run from the fact of tearing down schools, eliminating schools,” he said. “Cracking this project here was the best thing to do with the current funding.”

Officials expect to pay off the project in 12 years, and they do not plan to raise taxes to pay for it.

Taxpayers must lend a hand, Director Philip Kochasic said, urging them to call on local state legislators to ask for PlanCon money.

“What we need is a group effort here. Not only us, but everybody out there,” Kochasic said. “We can't go it alone.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or rskena@tribweb.com.

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