Public Bombards Clearfield School Board over Building Plans, Athletic Upgrades

(GantDaily File Photo)

CLEARFIELD – During a public comment session lasting approximately one-and-a-half hours Monday night, a Lawrence Township Supervisor and a room full of local businessmen and community members challenged the Clearfield Area School District Board of Directors’ decision to expand/renovate the high school as well as its consideration of upgrades to its athletic facilities and consolidation of its elementary and middle schools.

In June 2011, the board approved renovating and expanding the high school campus into grades seven through twelve by a 5-2 vote. The board has not sought any competitive bids for the $34 million high school renovation and expansion project but intends to obtain these sometime this spring. The board will receive and review bids for its high school athletic facilities next month.

In January, Superintendent Dr. Thomas B. Otto recommended the district consolidate the Centre, Bradford and Girard-Goshen elementary schools and the Clearfield Middle School, moving kindergarten through grades six into an expanded and renovated Clearfield Elementary School. If approved, this project would cost the district $8.9 million.

Last week, the district conducted its 780 hearing to receive public comment about their consideration of permanently closing the Girard-Goshen Elementary School. Approximately a half-dozen community members, including one with a several-page petition, disapproved moving toward consolidation. The board cannot take any official action regarding Girard-Goshen until its three-month “cooling off” period expires at the end of June.

Resident Gail Ralston said after the first public hearing months ago, media reports indicated the district could have a debt service of approximately $25 million without having to raise taxes. She said many board members voiced their opposition to all six options, and none favored a $55 million price tag.

Since that meeting, the community has experienced the bankruptcy of the Clearfield Bionol LLC, resulting in a loss of $465,000 in taxes. In addition, it’ll experience further loss with the planned closing of the Shawville Power Plant in April 2015, a loss of $225,000 in local taxes for a combined loss of $690,000. The district receives approximately 72 percent of this revenue, creating a $496,000 loss, she said.

“We will be losing the value of a significant number of mills,” Ralston said, adding the district’s largest employers are the Clearfield Hospital, Wal-Mart and the local government and school district. “Are any of these hiring? The hospital isn’t. It’s using the DuBois Regional Medical Center for staffing and certainly our school district isn’t.”

According to her, the district has a shrinking tax base and a declining enrollment. At the same time, she said the high school renovation and expansion project has continued to escalate in cost. She said Building and Grounds Director Rick Bunning told Lawrence Township Supervisor Glenn Johnston that additional gymnasium space was necessary because the district would be losing the middle school gymnasium as well as the high school’s auxiliary gymnasium, which will be converted into the district’s administrative offices.

Ralston pointed out the auxiliary gymnasium is smaller than a volleyball court (30 feet by 60 feet or 1,800 square feet), while a basketball court is 94 feet by 50 feet or 4,700 square feet. She said the additional space provided would be three or four times the size for 358 students, which is about 72 more students using the gymnasium each school day.

“How many periods are there in each day? How often does each student have gym? These are interesting questions with needed answers when spending a half-million dollars,” she said. “The regular-sized gym would also provide two teaching spaces with the use of a divider. Both buildings – high and middle schools – were at a greatly reduced capacity.

“Why do we need one building with two gyms that each seat 1,000 spectators? Is it to meet the needs of our students or the desire for a ‘showcase?’ We now have an opportunity to have a building that fits its student population. Build what we need, not what someone or a group wants. Build what fits a declining enrollment and an eroding tax base.”

She said the high school renovation and expansion project originally started out at $30.38 million but is currently at $34 million. She said it includes the additional $500,000 for a 1,000-seat gymnasium when the planned over run fund has been depleted with the plans of constructing additional office space.  She said the CES renovation and expansion project, if approved, would cost $8.9 million.

Ralston said the district would be reimbursed a portion for the high school and the CES projects. However, she said the athletic facilities upgrades wouldn’t be reimbursable by the state. She said that means all the funding would come from local tax dollars from millage or the district’s reserve funds.

“All of the $3.3 million (for athletic upgrades) is paid for by Clearfield’s taxpayers. This amount doesn’t include the maintenance building that the district has pursued at costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “The district plans on making a decision about the athletic fields and stadium at its April 23 meeting. Are you taking enough time to ponder this decision? Are you looking at the total financial picture?”

Ralston said she’s concerned by the costs associated with the high school and the CES projects and the athletic facilities, which equal $46.2 million without any more cost over runs. She said retirement costs increased from 8.65 percent this year to 12.36 percent in 2012-13 and to 25.56 percent in 2015-16. She also said that charter school expenses are increasing because the district must pay expenses for an out-of-district education without the students being counted for state reimbursement.

“State and federal funding are changing each year, and the trend for those numbers is downward. Are you really considering the whole picture? You can’t control all of your income revenue problems with local taxes. You can control your spending.

“. . . Our children don’t need a showcase gymnasium, athletic complex or building. We need to give them an education for their future. I’m only one, but I can do something. Each of you is one vote. Make your one vote count.”

Dr. C. Frederick Ralston, D.Ed., said the district initiated its journey months ago, and the public was advised it would have input and costs kept within reason through prudent oversight. Although the Clearfield area continues to face economic weaknesses, it supports only what is absolutely necessary, yet more plans have continually crept into the project.

He asked if any of the board members realized what it meant for its taxpayers. He asked them to consider that after several years, those who receive social security have only received modest increases of about $50 per month. He said those who are fortunate enough to have a retirement plan received little if any increase in their monthly benefit.

“This should remind you that those who have fixed incomes have seen less and less income per month. If you buy food and fill your automobile with gas, you’ll understand that concept,” he said. “Increasing the millage for this project will do the same thing. So, I ask you this in consideration of the rising costs of this project with an expanded gym and upgraded fields, ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Both Ralston’s were applauded by the public after which Lawrence Township Supervisor Glenn Johnston stepped forward to confront the board. He said he wasn’t only present as the supervisors’ chairman, but also as a taxpayer who believed it was “unfortunate” they only had five minutes each to voice their concerns about a $34 million high school project.

“That’s about $7 million per minute,” he quipped. “And, I’m not going to be as kind and sweet as these other people.”

Johnston asked the board what it was paying its architect for the massive high school renovation and expansion, and if his pay was percentage-based and incorporated increases. Board President Dave Glass said the district wasn’t prepared with this information but could certainly find out.

“Why do you all have blank looks on your faces?” Johnston asked. “If you were teachers getting blank looks from a student, you’d be upset. Are you going to answer my question?”

At that point, Glass asked Johnston how many school board and feasibility meetings he’d attended. He told Johnston these were all open to the community and to anyone interested in participation. Board member Jennifer Wallace told Johnston he should have participated in the feasibility meetings and discussions and told him she, personally, would love to hear his input and was “absolutely listening.”

Johnston asked how upgrades to the athletic facilities and a showcase gymnasium would improve the district’s education of students and their individual grade point average. Wallace told him sports, music and extracurricular activities were important provisions to the students.

“Do you want our students to have the absolute bare minimum? Is that what you’re saying?” Glass asked Johnston. “What we have isn’t good enough and hasn’t been maintained. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Johnston said he’d lived in a 100-year-old house, and it was an adequate roof over their heads. Glass said it was likely maintained to which Johnston pointed out Clearfield’s students finish in the bottom 10 percent in the state and struggle after moving on to college.

“Why are you worried about football stars? What does that add to an education?” Johnston asked. Glass said the district’s feasibility plans have been twisted in the media, and Johnston needed to walk through the buildings and onto the playing fields.

Otto told Johnston that the district would be spending $34 million on the high school expansion and renovation, and its athletic facilities upgrades were a separate endeavor. “You’re going to spend money whether it’s to repair the roof or to buy a bucket,” Johnston said.

Otto said the district cannot continually place its teachers and students at risk in its school buildings and on its sports fields. He asked Johnston if he realized the district’s mortgage would be paid off in one year, which would allow them to expand and modernize its buildings.

Community members interrupted the dialogue, saying, “No, it means they (the district) lower taxes.” Both Otto and Glass indicated that the district could potentially position itself to lower taxes if it would move forward with consolidation plans. Otto indicated the state caused this by cutting roughly $1 million in funding to the district, placing the burden on the taxpayers.

Johnston said the district’s enrollment has been declining because young people have left the area. He said Clearfield has become “a bunch of old farts” who are living off fixed incomes. Otto told Johnston that a Clearfield County Commissioner was in attendance, and he should ask him about his plans for business growth in the area. Otto said if Clearfield doesn’t have a great school district, business professionals won’t come to the area.

“Our teachers are working hard on reading, writing and arithmetic,” Otto said. Johnston said the district should “worry” about educational opportunities for students rather than “fancy sports fields.”

Resident Jerry Bloom admitted he’d never attended a school board meeting at Clearfield but had in Curwensville. When Curwensville pursued building plans, he said the public didn’t stand a chance and was mowed over by the district.

“I’m not saying the buildings don’t need repairs, but tax money is hard to come by,” Bloom said. “In Curwensville, mills have gone up six mills and probably will for the next few years . . . I think you need more research, another study, another plan.”

Glass told him the district has conducted four feasibility studies, and it cannot put this off. Resident Dave Fox said the district needs sports and activities and he understands safety concerns. But with the Shawville Power Plant closing in 2015, the district needs another study.

Businessmen Ben Timko said he moved back to Clearfield in 1998 and has been here 12 years. He and his wife have lived in Phoenix and New York City, but as residents here, they pay taxes as though they’re living in West Palm Beach. He said if people here don’t have the money, businesses will leave the community, as will its people.

“Open your paper and read it. There are pages upon pages of back taxes. If they put in an eight-story Graystone Court, people are going to move out of Clearfield Borough and into Lawrence Township. It’s going to look like Coalport or Westover,” Timko said.

Resident Stephanie Dale asked the district to “look outside the box.” She and resident Diane Hugney said the Clearfield community is filled with experienced contractors who they could employ for these projects, and they encouraged the district to utilize students in programs at the Clearfield County Career and Technology Center so that they receive hands-on experience with the proper supervision.

“Girard-Goshen needs fixed, and the students need to be close to home, not bused to Clearfield,” Dale said. Hugney suggested the board conduct its next meeting at Girard-Goshen so that people who attend can actually see the building’s condition rather than hear it spoken about by the board.

After the regular board meeting, Solicitor Aimee Willett said she would prepare a legal opinion for the district, outlining the limitations of in-house work. She said in-house work is limited to $5,000, and students wouldn’t be able to perform construction duties during a renovation project of this magnitude. She said the district must also follow the state’s process for obtaining competitive bids and prevailing wage rates.

Resident Charles Wholaver asked who determined and presented the board with its options. Glass said the district has received feasibility reports from two, different architects. Wholaver suggested the district seek out opinions from local contractors and listen to their findings.

Otto said at Girard-Goshen, the district paid several specialists to diagnose the problems related to its roof. He said they determined the $1.5 million figure for its repair, noting the entire roofing system needed replaced. Wholaver told the board Timko was a “roofing guy” and he’d know more than an architect from Sharon.

Businessman Jim Zalno recalled speaking with a customer who had been working on the new elementary school years ago. He said the gentleman commented that Clearfield must be a wealthy community, because the school’s complicated design added to its cost. “Why can’t we just have one like Leonard Grade? Why can’t we just ask for a rectangular-shaped building?”

Wallace said the public had asked for the board’s opinion, and although she couldn’t speak for the entire board, she was willing to participate in the discussion. As a single-mother of four children, she said she’s never voted to raise taxes and wouldn’t unless she could look each of them in the eye.

“I think we can look deeper for places to cut,” she said. However, safety-wise, she wouldn’t send her children to the district’s outlying school buildings. “They need to be closed, and we need to consolidate . . . sports aren’t a priority, education is, so I’m willing to put sports on the backburner.”

Resident Terry Wigfield said he had three children who were in music and sports. When he played football at the Clearfield Driving Park in high school, he said it was after the fair, and they didn’t even have matching helmets. He said it was one thing to fix the drainage, but he didn’t believe artificial turf was necessary.

Wallace said she was willing to speak with anyone about the district’s feasibility plans and walk through any of the buildings with them. Board member Larry Putt said he’d documented all the expressed concerns and planned to give each of them consideration before reaching his decision.

“This is what we’ve needed, a group of this size, to show up here,” Glass said. Johnston said that many people showed up at the meeting, and he hadn’t heard a single person support the board.

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