By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA – Doug M. Steve, head of the local school board, has a simple explanation for why a costly and controversial plan he favors to shutter two elementary schools in the borough and to build or rebuild two others outside town has spurred resounding opposition from a bipartisan array of civic groups, taxpayers, planners, petitioners, editorial writers and elected officials:
In an hour-long Feb. 7 interview in his Philadelphia Street insurance agency, the president of the Indiana Area School District board of directors said citizens are being misled.
“People are being fed the wrong information and don’t realize the benefits of the construction and renovation project,” said Steve, a former IASD employee who resigned in 2005 after 12 years in the classroom. “I think if people were exposed to facts, there would be much less of this opposition we are seeing.”
Steve responded to arguments presented by the project’s opponents, who for months have raised objections at public meetings and in other forums.
- Steve said he and his school-board allies are not rushing the $32 million.
“People think we’re rushing, but that’s because of the available money,” Steve said. “With a $5 million reimbursement from PlanCon, we have a valuable opportunity to save money.”
PlanCon, an acronym for Planning and Construction Workbook, is used by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to reimburse school districts for large construction projects. PlanCon imposed a deadline for applications early last year, Steve said, and the district needs to take advantage of the available money now that it is in queue for reimbursement.
Steve said the PlanCon reimbursement would “neutralize” a $5 million loss to the school system’s finances from 2012 school-building renovations that are not paid off.
The school system is in a “good financial situation,” Steve said, with “$6 million in the school’s fund reserve.”
- Steve said a majority of “business people and teachers” support his $32 million plan. He offered no evidence to support the assertion.
- Steve said a cheaper alternative to spend a quarter as much as the board majority’s $32 million, with the money aimed solely at renovations to last up to 15 years, was a “Band Aid approach” for old buildings. The board rejected the $8 million plan in January on a 6-3 vote.
- Steve countered criticism about the school system’s public-information efforts. “The district has been incredibly open, especially with the Outreach Committee,” he said. The committee’s meetings began in December.
CRITICS of Steve’s preferred plan responded to the board president’s points in interviews conducted since late January.
State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, on Feb. 2 supplied The HawkEye with a copy of his Oct. 24 letter addressed to Steve and “dear board members.” In it, the senator expressed “a word of caution on several levels”:
“As the Indiana Area School District (IASD) Board of Directors continues moving forward on the elementary realignment, I must express my reservations on both the speed and magnitude of the proposed project currently being advanced,” White’s letter read. [Click to see Sen. White letter: don-white-letter-102416 ]
White called for a “concrete explanation” of how the project would save money and listed such concerns as the scope and speed of the project and the re-use of property following demolition of two schools.
State Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, did not respond to emails asking his position on the project.
ERIC M. BARKER, a local community organizer and founder of the progressive advocacy group Indiana VIE, echoed White’s concerns in a joint Feb. 1 interview with Thomas R. Harley, former school board president.
Barker also cited citizen misunderstanding of the issue, but in the context of the May 2016 elections.
“The school board is rushing the process because they know the people don’t want it,” Barker said at a table in his group’s headquarters on Philadelphia Street. “There was little voter turnout when the project was first being proposed. So I don’t think people truly understood what was going on. I think the district took advantage of a low response rate and voter turnout and used it to their advantage.”
Harley, a local architect and school board president from 2011 to 2015, called the plan’s architecture, academics and economics “insane.”
“Cutting staff in a mega-school just doesn’t make sense,” Harley said. “We should be focusing and getting these kids as much attention as possible.”
Steve acknowledged his plan would cut custodians, teaching aides and principals.
Harley charged the school board majority with a lack of transparency when majority members address the tax increase required to help pay for the plan.
“They always throw around 1 percent and 3 percent like they are interchangeable,” Harley said. “It’s deceiving — like they know the public won’t like it if they are straightforward.”
BOTH STEVE AND school system Superintendent Dale R. Kirsch refer to the plan’s accompanying tax increase as 1 percent. In a Jan. 26 question-and-answer document supplied by Steve, Kirsch is quoted saying the building project is “estimated to result in a one-time real estate tax increase of approximately 1 percent.”
Steve referred to the tax hike as 1 percent several times in the Feb. 7 interview. But he acknowledged that the figure does not include an additional 2 percent tax hike needed to cover “operating costs” of the schools.
Still, Steve asserted that the school district is in a “good financial situation,” with “$6 million in the school’s fund reserve.”
But in the Jan. 26 Q&A document, Kirsch acknowledged the financial burden the board majority’s $32 million plan would impose on the system.
“The debt required to fund the building projects is significant, especially when compared to the school district’s outstanding bond principal of $31,498,000,” the document reads.
WALTER SCHROTH, a local businessman and school board member, criticized the plan’s finances during a Feb. 3 phone interview.
“The whole process is just a lot of borrowing,” Schroth said. “Additionally, the problems that the school identifies as justifying the $32 million do not require nearly that much money — and money we don’t actually have.”
In January, Schroth proposed an alternative that would spend a quarter of the majority’s $32 million solely on renovations to last up to 15 years. The board rejected the $8 million plan on a 6-3 vote.
THE INDIANA GAZETTE has been enterprising in its coverage of the issue. In early January, for example, it published results of an unscientific poll of readers that found 3-1 support for “keeping the district’s schools as they are.”
And on Jan. 29, the paper published a rare institutional editorial on its opinion page. The editorial bore the headline, “Now’s not the time for Indiana school project.”
JOSEPHINE A. Cunningham, a retired IASD social studies teacher, graded the board majority’s arguments a failure.
“They haven’t made a case economically or academically,” Cunningham said in a Feb. 7 interview. “They are deaf to the people and blind to their own arrogance.”
Nevertheless, Steve said the project is in queue to receive the $5 million reimbursement from PlanCon, and he expected the school board to solicit bids for the project around mid-March.
Correction: An earlier version of this story was changed to reflect school board President Doug Steve’s Feb. 16 response: He left his school-district teaching position in summer 2005, not at mid-academic year, Steve wrote, and bids for the elementary-schools project will be solicited in March, not awarded in March.
Logan Hullinger, junior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from Clarion, is a staff reporter for The HawkEye. He may be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu
Sidebar: IASD board members’ scorecard
INDIANA — On Sept. 12, the Indiana Area School District board of directors voted 6-3 to close two aging elementary schools in the borough and build or rebuild two other schools outside the municipality for students in grades kindergarten through 5th.
Following is a listing of the nine school board members, their Sept. 12 votes on the proposed $32 million project and their party affiliations (based on public voter-registration records kept in the county courthouse).
Board member 9/12/16 vote Registration
Doug Steve, president approve Democrat
Diana Paccapaniccia, vice president approve No affiliation
John Barbor approve Democrat
Deborah Clawson approve Democrat
Robert Edwards approve Republican
John Uccellini approve Democrat
Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro oppose Democrat
Tamara Leeper oppose No registration record
Walter Schroth oppose Republican
— Source: Indiana County Voter Registration Office