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White calls Armstrong ballot question 'false choice'

| Tuesday, March 29, 2011

State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, last night called the Armstrong School District school board majority "misleading and disingenuous" and accused them of "not being in compliance with the majority of the voters in the district."

White's comments were made at the school board's monthly voting meeting, where it was proposed to put a referendum on the May primary ballot that asks voters whether they favor a $155 million new school. Directors advocating the ballot question have argued that a rejection of a new school would be tacit approval of the majority's current plan for an $80 million renovation and enlargement of three high schools.

The new school estimate had earlier been pegged at $145 million, but was changed to $155 million to include interest on the borrowed funds.

White, along with Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeff Piccola and Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, recently requested that the state Department of Education review the district's renovation plans. White told directors last night that he did so because the spending warranted further review.

The senator cited unemployment figures, declining population, declining enrollment and high taxes as the reasons for his actions.

"Considering all these factors and the overwhelming public feedback my office has received, I could not watch as this board takes actions to further exacerbate the economic distress of our mutual constituents while literally mortgaging future generations of taxpayers with unsustainable tax burden," he said. "Maybe property taxes will not increase this year, but to suggest this debt burden will not contribute to taxes increasing in future years is disingenuous."

White called the referendum a "false choice" and said he disagreed that the only two options before the taxpayers is "either spend $80 million on renovations or $155 million on some mythical super school."

"It's like telling the taxpayers, do you want robbed at gunpoint or would you rather have your pocket picked," White said of the two options presented by Director James Solak. "There is a third option that must be considered and that is 'spend no more.' I hope that if this referendum does go to the voters that they soundly defeat it and see it for the sham that it is."

Solak, who spent a considerable amount of the meeting defending the board majority's actions and challenging White's recommendation to have the state Education Department further review the renovations plans, argued that White could not request the state review without citing specific issues with the plan.

Solak and board President Rose Stitt both argued that the district has spent the past 16 months developing the renovation plans so that there would be no tax increase over the 30-year borrowing period.

"We have taken numerous steps to cut costs and save the district money and it's been well documented," Solak said. "We've proven over and over that the renovation plan will not cost the taxpayers any additional money."

White responded by asking the board, "If you can save that kind of money, why do you have to go out and spend it• Is it necessary to spend $80 million given the economic climate?

After a lengthy discussion over figures for the schools, as well as the district tax rates, White told Solak: "Figures don't lie, but liars figure. You can make the numbers say anything you want them to."

Solak responded that if district taxes increased as a result of the $80 million funding for the renovation plans, he would resign from the board.

Directors Chris Choncek and Jim Rearic, who both opposed placement of the ballot question, told the audience of about 250 people that if they are re-elected they would not take steps to build a new combined high school.

"I never said we need a new school or that we have to have one," Choncek said. "I said it was one of many options that we need to consider. Now is not the time to consider building a new school."

Rearic said: "When the economy is good, tough decisions are easy to make, but times have changed and people must be willing to change their minds and their views. The (board) majority has been nothing but the same old, same old and has drilled into the ground the data and are not willing to look at anything new."

After nearly four hours of debate, directors voted to place the referendum on the ballot by vote of 5-3. Directors Solak, Stitt, Sara Yassem, Royce Smeltzer and John Monroe voted in favor of the referendum, while directors Chris Choncek, Joe Close and Jim Rearic voted against it. Director Steve Kozuch abstained.

The referendum question also must be approved by the county election board before being placed on the ballot.

The question is to read: "Shall debt in the combined sum of $155 million for the purpose of construction of a new comprehensive high school building and Elderton K-6 building be authorized to be incurred as, or (as appropriate) transferred from nonelectoral debt to, debt approved by the electors?"

Other votes:

• Directors voted 5-1 in favor of having a Project Labor Agreement in place for the Ford City High School renovation project. Directors Stitt, Solak, Smeltzer, Yassem and Kozuch voted in favor of the agreement, while Monroe voted no. Directors Choncek, Close and Rearic abstained from voting.

Before the vote, several contractors, both union and nonunion, pleaded their case with directors. Some said they felt the agreement would limit competition and drive costs up, while one said the agreement would help ensure that local people would be able to work on the projects.

• Directors voted 6-3 to approve taking legal action against the state Education Department, as well as White, Piccola and Pyle for costs incurred as a result of the state's delay of the renovation projects. Directors Solak, Stitt, Smeltzer, Yassem, Monroe and Kozuch voted in favor of taking legal action, while Choncek, Close and Rearic voted no.

To date, the Education Department has not set a date for a public hearing, requested by the legislators.

District solicitor Jack Cambest chastised White for coming to the meeting without a proper complaint in place to delay the renovation plans.

"We heard a lot of political rhetoric and opinions tonight, but we heard nothing specific about the issues that would warrant a review by the state," he said. "And you know what they say about opinions: Everyone has them."

Cambest accused the senator of wasting money by not following procedure in filing a complaint with the department and said the district will have to spend money to "try and figure out what White and Pyle will say or ask the department when a hearing does occur."

Before Cambest's comments, White said that seeking legal action against the state would do nothing to expedite the process and criticized directors for considering legal actions.

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