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Quaker Valley looks to seek voter approval for high school project

| Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

Just two other Pennsylvania school districts in about the last 12 years have gained voter support to exceed state borrowing limits — an approach Quaker Valley could take in a bid to replace its nearly century-old high school.

Of the 18 times districts have tried it since 2006, only State College Area and Upper Dublin school districts have succeeded, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, a 3,000-member nonprofit based in Harrisburg.

State College Area board President Amber Concepcion said she made passage of the referendum her mission. In 2014, 74 percent of voters backed borrowing up to $85 million.

“It was so important we couldn't take a chance at it not passing,” said Concepcion, a mother of three who graduated from the high school she lobbied to replace. “It was all hands on deck. For me, it was like a full-time job for almost a year. But we had a lot of community volunteers, which helped a lot.”

More than 2,000 students moved to “State High” on Jan. 8, though a portion of the building will not be complete until next year. The project's cost is about $137 million , financed by existing tax revenue, referendum debt and $10 million from district reserves.

The 1950s-era building was replaced with an energy-efficient high school with flexible learning spaces. Concepcion said fixing up the building wasn't the best option because “we'd have a brand-new 1950s building.”

“The key is building trust with your community before you even start the process, in terms of financial management, and the way the district is going generally,” Concepcion said.

The question in 2014 asked voters if they authorized the district incurring $85 million in debt for a new school.

“We were very thorough in explaining to voters what the question meant, and how the bonds would be repaid via a separate millage line on their school property taxes,” she said.

In the year after the referendum, the 2015-16 budget raised taxes 6.1 percent, of which 4.2 percent went to the referendum debt for the building. That was about $172 annually for the owner of a home assessed at $72,000, according to news reports.

With each millage increase, property owners can see how much is going to repay the bonds for the high school.

State College's project triggered a referendum because there are limits on what local governments can borrow without taxpayer approval.

The Local Government Unit Debt Act of 1996 requires a referendum if a school district seeks to exceed a state-imposed limit on borrowing capacity, to issue bonds for building projects.

That's likely the approach Quaker Valley leaders will take, spokeswoman Angela Conigliaro said — asking voters to support incurring additional debt to fund a new building.

Quaker Valley's borrowing capacity is about $43 million, Finance Director Scott Antoline said, with the district's existing debt is about $62 million. Board Vice President Robert Riker last month said that “the closest we've gotten at this point, the referendum number would end up in the $70 (million) to $90 million range.”

“We're not really trying to lay out a detailed plan of this is how it's going to be. We're trying to further the conversation of what we all want it to be,” Riker said.

Residents can learn more during public meetings set for 9:15 a.m. Feb. 3 and Feb. 19 in the high school library.

At the district's first public forum, Superintendent Heidi Ondek said school leaders plan to ask voters to allow the district to borrow $70 million. Ondek said after the forum that the cost of the building is unknown and could be more or less than $70 million.

Board President Sarah Heres urged residents to “stay engaged” with the process.

“It's exciting this property became available, and its proximity to the old school and it by, all accounts, will work for us to provide this building of the 21st century,” she said.

The planned-for location is a hilltop spot in Edgeworth, Leet, and Leetsdale off Camp Meeting Road, where the district has an option to buy nearly 130 acres for up to $7.5 million.

A referendum question to borrow for the project could come in the next year, district officials said in January. They have not provided an estimate for the potential impact on property taxes or cost.

“We will be developing informational millage investment charts relative to the potential referendum amount as part of the ongoing communications with our community,” Conigliaro said.

The 2017-18 budget was $49 million, and required a tax increase to balance a projected deficit.

The high school on Beaver Street in Leetsdale enrolls about 600 students and, built in 1926, is among the oldest high school buildings in Allegheny County. There is no central air conditioning system — window units instead are used to circulate fresh air and keep rooms cool. The building isn't fully ADA-compliant and there's not enough room to create more parking spaces.

Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. Stephanie Hacke contributed to this report.

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