State College’s Monolith High School and Pennsylvania Sunshine Laws

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    State College’s Monolith High School and Pennsylvania Sunshine Laws

    Conclusion: If your school district proposes an electoral debt referendum ensure Sunshine is not eclipsed. If your school board needs a referendum consultant, vote a new school board and superintendent. Avoid a 30 percent cost overrun.

    This is an opinion article by State College Watchdog

    State College, Pennsylvania, is a self-presumed City-Upon-the-Hill — enlightened and oligarchic. There are 50,000 university students, 6,750 (a continually declining number) public school students, parasitic education ancillary services, and a higher ratio of government paid employees, not to mention scholars, than any other Pennsylvania municipality. The education industry thrives here. Our local newspaper, absent fundamental curiosity, relies on Sominex, stenography, and press releases.

    The scripture: Thou shalt not ask how much education costs rather how much taxpayers must pay. The corollary: There is never too much to pay for education, mediocre, or otherwise. Our new Monolith High School will have a cornerstone – “Taxpayers Have an Unquestioning Obligation.”

    Within the school district’s municipal region, for every dollar of property tax collected, 81 percent goes to the school district, 16 percent to Centre County, and 5 percent to the six municipalities. The distribution of local income taxes is similar. Expenditures for the school district $152 million) exceed those of all municipalities and the county ($145 million not including federal welfare funds for the county).

    The Pennsylvania State University continually argues a dogma that it is a state affiliated, not a state, university and thus only selectively subject to Pennsylvania Sunshine Laws. Its movement to full compliance with Sunshine is glacial. The judicial system’s patience, however, is failing. Recent scandals are reflective of inbred institutional secrecy. Our newspaper, Centre Daily Oligarch, is oblivious. The Centre Daily Oligarch,

    By contrast, the local State College Area School District (SCASD) taken to court in 2006 by Citizens Marino and Gordon pro se to comply with the state’s Sunshine Laws now complies fully and timely (usually) with Sunshine. The genesis of the-day-in-court was a consequence of widespread disregard for open records and meetings, clandestine telephone tree board meetings, and a 2006 Taj Mahal High School Project.

    When the board of school directors, sub rosa (under the rose) undertook in 2006 an extravagant renovation of the district’s high school in a manner demonstrably contrary to public preference, common sense, and affordability, there was rebellion during the Act 34 Hearing. Police in attendance were required.
    A widely read article explains the deception, closed records, and efforts to circumvent open meetings. A banner “The Public is Not Smart Enough to Understand” should cavalierly been displayed in the school board’s meeting room and the mandatory
    Act 34 Public Hearing.

    The article, “Ensuring Failure of Public Support for a New High School” provides chronology and details resulting in cancellation when the projected $102 million cost exceeded $130 million (plus 28 percent) before one shovel of earth moved. The over cost loonacy (differing from lunacy) was followed by the Board of Directors entering into a SWAP agreement for $58 million of variable interest rate bonds absent any debt and costing $9 million taxpayer dollars in an attempt to circumvent Act 1 referendum requirements. The Wall Street Journal brought National attention to the nitwittery. See also: School District Paying Multi-Millions in Swap Deal for Non-Existent Loan.

    Despite spending more than $22,500 per student (total expenditures $152 million divided by average daily enrollment 6,750 for year 2017-18), there is no substantive evidence that spending more tax dollars increases achievement at the SCASD. Read this article: State College Area School District Criticism for details.

    SCASD public school enrollment is decreasing as alternative school enrollment increases proportionately. Charter schools are thriving. Without open records, the public would believe the superintendent’s and school board’s contention that charter schools are “stealing” education dollars. Open records show that our charter schools (excluding cyber) educate at about half the cost of Big School. About 20 percent of district school age children attended alternative schools in 2017.
    See: Charter Schools.

    In 2013, having learned well the lessons about open records and meetings, the SCASD proposed another project, the Monolith High School, to rehabilitate the circa 1950-60’s high school buildings after years of deliberately postponed maintenance. They needed an $85 million electoral debt referendum.

    The school board hired out-of-town consultant, shill Michael Paston, and went public. The subterfuge was reminiscent of The Music Man – 76 Trombones with Professor Harold Hill, played by Paston. The Music Man and his consorts, the school administration, saturated the community with preference surveys, articles in local media, television and radio interviews, $20,000 in paid advertisements, open house, forums, citizen meetings, taking the message into our churches and synagogue. They hired a $100,000 a year press secretary.

    The district sent 6,800 surveys to “scientifically selected” registered voter households; 1,700 surveys (25 percent) returned. Open records revealed a convoluted survey. When proselytizing YES votes, the board emphasized that 70 plus percent of 1,700 surveyed voters in 2013 agreed to a $115 million high school. Open records, however, showed that only 36 percent of the same voters agreed to the tax increase needed to pay for it; 64 percent did not show preference to pay for a $115 million project. The majority of those responding to the community preferred to pay for a modest $90 million total cost high school. Nevertheless, the school board remained committed to the maximum $115 million high school the architect (paid a 6 percent commission) preferred. The math stumped the local newspaper. Paston applauded the “transparency” of the SCASD effort in this project.

    After 2006 and prior to 2014, sixteen school referendums were presented in Pennsylvania as required by Act 1 of 2006. Fifteen failed voter approval. Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates, school architects specializing in hand-holding referendum-funded projects and now hired by the SCASD, were involved with eight failures and one success.

    The only referendum-successful district was Upper Dublin. Mike Paston the referendum consultant for Crabtree was a former president of the Upper Dublin school board. Paston was instrumental passing the only successful school debt referendum in Pennsylvania at that time. Reportedly, Upper Dublin incurred financial problems and staff reductions that endure even today. Contact Upper Dublin for details.

    Two districts (Donegal and Tuscarora) reportedly built schools after failed referendums for costs respectively 50 and 25 percent less than original architectural estimates. Imagine that. Tredyffrin-Easttown and North Allegheny incurred similar problems caused by pre-2006 high school debt problems excepted from Act 1 tax increase limits. Souderton Area the same for its 2009 non-referendum high school debt.

    Let Watchdog correct something. The school board did not hire the referendum consultant. That would be a violation of the Public School Code and referendum law. The law clearly states that the school board may not influence or encourage passing a referendum. Rather they are restricted to providing only comparative options to voters. Therefore, the Monolith High architect, Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates hired and paid the referendum consultant to teach the school board how to urge voters to vote the right way. Crabtree used taxpayer dollars paid to them to pay Paston. It is against the law to spend public funds to influence a referendum. Read: SCASD Violated Referendum Law.

    The Music Man convinced the school board that they had an option to comply with either but not both the Unit Debt Act or Act 1. This is an interpretation without legal precedent. The school district solicitor smiled but did not intervene. The consultant recommended the “Upper Dublin solution” using the Unit Debt Act exclusively and to ignore Act 1 voter protection requirements. Music Man counseled the law does indeed specify the district cannot spend money to advocate for the referendum, but can certainly advocate for the project. The nitwittery involved in that conclusion is pending resolution by state executive and legislative agencies since 2014, three years after the referendum.

    Three weeks before the election, Watchdog appealed to the County Election Board that the school board violated the law. The county election board and county solicitor were sympathetic, they held a hearing, sat on their hands, and the day before the election suggested citizens make a criminal complaint to the County District Attorney. This would be the same District Attorney who lost the May 2017 Primary on both party tickets by 73 percent of the vote, the largest loss in recent county history. She lost chiefly because of revelations in Centre County open records.

    No matter that paid advertisements blatantly encouraged voters to vote YES. No matter that the school district violated their own policies when inviting the local Chamber of Commerce to use the school cafeteria free of charge to urge voters to approve the Monolith High referendum. Upon complaint, the district responded that the superintendent was a Chamber member and could therefore waive [flaunt] written school policy 707. Watchdog won an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. The district responded to the appeal decision explaining the district did not create records required by their Policy 707. Hence, no records, no compliance, all OK.

    In 2017, the projected cost for the building under construction is a minimum $141 million (plus 23 percent). Now add a $9 million improvement to the football stadium slipped in as a “separate project.” Total cost $150 million (plus 30 percent). Oops, forgot the added debt service of $67 million to raise the $43 million for cost overruns. The total cost, including debt service for Monolith High (it is a six times larger footprint than the old high school with zero student increase) is about $204 million over 30 years. The facility is extravagant as defined by extravagant. It is totally absent moderate cost. (There is a $4 million variance in the $141 million cost because the district promotes that a LEED grant paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers is not a cost.)

    Open records show that the total debt service for Monolith High is about $204 million. There was nothing in the referendum wording about $204 million or the 2.7 mill referendum real estate tax increase or the concurrent 9.8 percent over two years real estate tax increase. That 9.8 percent one time increase is included and compounded forever. The district argues it is not fair to consider interest costs. They explain families do not include the mortgage cost when valuing their house. True, but a house is an appreciating asset. A school building is a depreciating asset.

    The district spent $68,000 public funds to inform, educate, or urge voters to support the referendum. The school board also decided not to include the amount of the tax rate increase within the ballot wording. Both, we opine, conflict with the Taxpayer Relief Act 1 of 2006 and the Pennsylvania Referendum Handbook.

    The SCASD urged voters to approve an $85 million electoral debt for a high school renovation project on the May 20, 2014 ballot. 15.7 percent of registered voters said YES, 5.6 percent said NO, 78.7 percent did not vote.

    A referendum is not a public contract. Nothing precludes a school board from significantly changing the project or building a different high school in another location. Nothing precludes a cost that exceeds $115 million committed by the school board. Nothing prevents a school board paying for an extravagant new design rather than conform to a standard architectural model. The rebuttal is: trust the school board, architect, contractor, financial advisors, consultants, and the bollixed SCASD administration that resulted in extensive lack of high school repair over 20 years. Failed repair despite annual 5 percent increases in revenue. Trust a system replete with finance blunders the past 20 years. Actually, something can preclude it, 78.7 percent of voters who are mostly comatose can change nothing to something.

    Read more about the State College Area School District at: State College Watchdog. Select UPLOADS under the bulldog to see all articles (42 to date) with 40,000 views.

    • This topic was modified 11 months ago by  Watchdog7.
    • This topic was modified 11 months ago by  Watchdog7.
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