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Time, politics may play roles in Chambersburg's school needs

May 19, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Time and Pennsylvania politics may soon become factors as the Chambersburg Area School District decides what direction it will take with a long-range master plan.

The 45-member task force appointed by the school board to look at future building needs will hold an eighth meeting on Tuesday, June 1, and hear a recommendation from the Mechanicsburg, Pa., architectural firm of Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates regarding what the district should do with its three secondary and 18 elementary schools.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on the state budget and possible property tax reform that could severely limit the district's ability to levy taxes to pay for a major building program.

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At Tuesday night's task force meeting, Franklin County Area Development Corp. President L. Michael Ross asked what effect property tax reform and a proposed "back-end referendum" could have on the plan.

"Time and money," answered architect Paul Taylor.

If a tax reform package aimed at reducing school property taxes is approved by the General Assembly, it may include a provision requiring districts to put their budgets to a vote in the spring primary should a proposed tax increase exceed the average of an index based on state wage rates.

The combined annual average increase for the index varied between 2.6 percent and 4.2 percent over the past six years, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which opposes the referendum.

Taylor said referendums in other states draw out the process of getting building programs approved.

"Typically, in New Jersey, it's a two- or three-referendum turnaround," he said.

"There's a real sense of urgency here," Ross said.

If the district does not approve a building program before tax reform takes effect, "we'll be having this meeting a hundred times," he said.

The state budget deadline is June 30, but Ross said legislation for tax reform could come later in the year.

Taylor did not reveal what his firm will recommend in two weeks, but said it will include a couple of options.

"The idea that this school district would support two high schools ... the reality is that the votes aren't there to do that," said school board member David Sciamanna.

The idea of one large school separated into "academies" for different grades or career paths was opposed by task force member Michael Finucane. He said the concept originated in urban schools that were too big to manage.

"We create four cellblocks and call them academies," he said.

After the meeting, school board member Craig Musser said he prefers one high school for ninth- and 10th-graders and another for 11th- and 12th-grade students. He predicted the choice will come down to renovating and expanding the current high school or building a new one at another location.

The district spent a lot of money building schools during the 1950s and early 1960s, but spending has been sporadic since then, Sciamanna said.

"We're at a crossroads. ... It's time we narrowed our options," he said.

At a previous meeting, Taylor estimated the cost of the secondary school options at between $110 million and $155.7 million. Estimates for an elementary school program varied from $45 million to $75 million.

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