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School officials face much work with building plan

July 23, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Several steps must be followed and several years may pass before the district-wide building plan approved by the Chambersburg School Board on Wednesday is transformed to bricks and mortar, district officials said Thursday.

The price tag on the secondary and elementary options approved is estimated at $132.6 million, a number that likely will change during months of planning, Business Manager Rick Vensel said.

"If the board directed an architect to proceed now, in my opinion, it would be two years before you turned your first spade of dirt," Vensel said. To complete all the building projects would take 10 to 15 years, he said.

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A series of bond issues would be needed to pay for the plan, according to Vensel. Under a hypothetical model he previously developed for a $150 million building project, Vensel said property taxes would need to be raised 1.25 mills a year for 10 years to service the debt.

A debt resolution would be required to move the project forward and board member David Sciamanna said that could happen at an Aug. 18 board meeting.

"I'm prepared to say, 'Let's move,'" he said.

"I don't think we're far enough along to consider that," said Board President Stanley Helman, who voted against the building plan.

"Where I have a problem is with the district jumping ahead just to beat the referendum," Helman said.

If the board approves a debt resolution before Sept. 3, Vensel said it could qualify the district for an exclusion from Pennsylvania's new school property tax reform law. If not, Vensel said he believes funding for the building plan would be subject to approval by district voters.

The tax reform law requires a referendum if a district's proposed real estate tax increase is higher than an inflationary index set by the state. The 2004-05 budget raised the mill rate by 7 percent, well in excess of inflation, Vensel said.

"This is the most massive change in Pennsylvania school funding in 40 years," Vensel said. "It would be highly unlikely that any school board, without severely curtailing programs, would be able to embrace this size of project" without having to go to a referendum, he said.

"I really have no fear of referendum," said Helman, noting that taxpayers have supported previous projects that raised taxes "as long as the money was spent in a prudent fashion."

In broad terms, the board voted 5-4 for a new high school campus for grades nine through 12 and directed the administration to begin the process of obtaining the land. The resolution would create two middle schools out of the high school and junior high and reduce the number of elementary schools from 18 to 12.

"My understanding of the motion is that they are setting a direction, but the details will be worked out along the way," Superintendent Edwin Sponseller said Thursday. "As we work with the architects, the options will be refined."

"You've got to paint the big picture and then paint in the details," Sciamanna. "In my mind, I'm still willing to make some changes and be flexible" on the ultimate configuration.

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