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Emotions run high at Ram Community Centre meeting

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Caption: A crowd listens as Allan Darr talks about the proposed Ram Community Centre on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at the Penns Valley High School auditorium. Christopher Weddle

BY ED MAHON

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2011

PENN TOWNSHIP — About 300 Penns Valley Area residents turned out for an informational meeting Wednesday night about the proposed $4.5 million Ram Community Centre.

The issue’s become controversial in recent weeks, and the moderator ended the meeting after some audience members started shouting questions and objections to the project and after two men in the crowd got into an argument.

“I don’t think anybody in this room says we don’t want a YMCA. We just don’t want it on the school property,” Johnathan Gillan shouted to the moderator, so he could be heard in the almost packed auditorium at Penns Valley Area High School.

One person greeted his comment with an “Amen” and some applauded. But a few sitting next to him objected.

“Why not?” shouted another man in the crowd. When Gillan responded that he had safety concerns, the other man — who later declined to give his name a reporter — mocked that argument.

“Do you actually think there’s going to be boogeymen hiding behind every bush, reaching out to grab a kid? Do you actually believe that?” the man shouted. “Come on. Jerry Sandusky is over there. He’s not here. He’s one guy. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Then Russ Brooks, the moderator and supporter of the proposed projected, tapped on the microphone and told the audience he was wrapping things up.

“As I said at the outset, every question would be treated with respect even if we could not answer it tonight. Pardon me,” Brooks, who’s both a former Penns Valley Area school board member and a former Centre Hall mayor, said as one person yelled another comment. “The second point I made was we needed to be civil. And clearly there are levels of frustration among individuals that don’t permit that. And I’m genuinely sorry about that. But please stay and talk with any person here after we close the meeting, and look for other opportunities to learn more, and get more facts, and express yourself.”

The ending came shortly after 9 p.m., a little more than two hours into the meeting which had been highly anticipated in the region with about 9,000 residents. For the past several weeks, dueling road signs have been set up on Penns Valley Area lawns and farms.

At issue is whether the school district should lease land to a nonprofit organization that will build a community center. That all-volunteer nonprofit, known as the Ram Community Centre, has agreements to lease space inside the facility for a YMCA branch, medical offices and a senior center.

Leaders of the Ram Community Centre have listed answers to more than 60 questions at their website, http://www.pvramcentre.org, and they said Wednesday evening they planned to answer every question that audience members wrote down. Susan Dawson criticized the format of the meeting.

“There was an hour and a half given to their views, and no time giving to the opposing views,” she said. “The question and answer session was very controlled. And that was disappointing.”

From 7 to about 8:30 p.m., about 10 speakers and supporters of the project presented information. Then they fielded questions, but the questions had to be written down on index cards.

Brooks said he understood Dawson’s frustration. But he said the large meeting was a good setup for providing information, not debating an issue.

“The intention is to have small group meetings, with seven, eight, 10 people, have some coffee and talk,” Brooks said, “and really, really, deeply dive into some of those questions.” Ed Mahon can be reached at 231-4619.

Read more here: Emotions run high at Ram Community Centre discussion.

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Ram Centre plan stirs division in Penns Valley community

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

A sign opposing the Penns Valley Ram Centre being built on school property sits in along Route 45 in front of the Penns Valley High School. Abby Drey 

 

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

MONDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2011

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BY ED MAHON

PENN TOWNSHIP — Dueling signs sit on farms and lawns in Penns and Brush valleys. “No Ram Center on school property,” read the yellow opposition signs that have black and red lettering.

The white signs with blue lettering and an image of a ram have a different message.

“Please Support the Ram Community Centre,” they read. “Strengthening Family, Friends and Community.”

The creators of the two signs don’t just differ on whether “center” should be spelled like the county where it’s located. They and their supporters disagree about the role of a publicly funded school district — and whether Penns Valley Area school leaders should be working to establish a nonprofit that will rent space for a YMCA, a senior center and medical offices.

The conflict threatens to delay or derail the construction of the $4.5 Ram Community Centre — an idea that dates back to 2007, but which has been modified twice.

“The goals are noble of this group, but it doesn’t belong on school property,” said Richard Steinberger, a Penn State research scientist who has one of the yellow, black and red signs on his Penns Valley home. “And the school needs to concentrate on academics, not on business ventures.”

Chris Hosterman has a different view of the partnership between the Penns Valley Area School District and the nonprofit Ram Community Centre.

“The reality is that’s the strength of the plan,” said Hosterman, a former Penns Valley Area school board member and leader of the community center project. “We’re taking taxpayer assets and leveraging those for the community.”

Read more here: Ram Centre plan stirs division in Penns Valley community.

State College school board replaces Pawelczyk with Leous as vice presient

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2011

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BY ED MAHON

STATE COLLEGE — After weeks of behind-the-scenes talks and a pointed debate Monday night, State College Area school board members voted 5-4 to replace Jim Pawelczyk as board vice president with Jim Leous. Board member Dorothea

Stahl criticized the change and implied it was “short-sighted and ignorant” to force someone out of a leadership role.

Then she brought up the 2007 election, when she and four other challengers won seats on the board, as community members complained that a proposed high school construction project was too expensive and that school board members was too secretive.

Ann McGlaughlin, who also was elected in 2007, also criticized the change as well.

“It has been proposed to several of us this week that we have different sides on the board and that we need to have people who represent those different sides,” said McGlaughlin. “We don’t have an aisle in school board. We don’t negotiate. We work together.”

Read more here: State College school board replaces Pawelczyk with Leous as vice president.

Local firm out of State College swap suit

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2011

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BY ED MAHON

A federal judge has granted a State College law firm’s request to keep it out of a multimillion- dollar lawsuit between the Royal Bank of Canada and State College Area School District.

But the Harrisburg law firm Rhoads & Sinon, which also offered advice on the 2006 and 2007 financial deals, is still a third-party defendant in the lawsuit brought in federal court.

“We are gratified that the court permitted our claim against Rhoads & Sinon to proceed to discovery. We are confident that we will ultimately prevail in this lawsuit, but if the court rules that the swap agreement or the amendment was invalid under Pennsylvania law, then Rhoads & Sinon should to be held liable for its opinion letter that we relied upon to our detriment,” the bank said in a statement Monday afternoon.

The attorney representing the State College law firm, Miller, Kistler, Campbell said Monday afternoon he had not yet reviewed the judge’s decision and couldn’t comment. The attorney for Rhoads & Sinon could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit began in August 2009, when the attorneys for the State College Area School District asked a federal judge to declare the contract between the district and the Royal Bank of Canada void. The district’s attorneys argued that the two sides did not follow several provisions of the state law that authorized swaps, the Local Government Unit Debt Act.

The Royal Bank of Canada, meanwhile, argues that district leaders understood the risk of the deal, known as a qualified interest rate management agreement, and only wanted to back out after changes in the financial market worked against the district. The bank argues the district owes them about $10.37 million.

Read more: Local firm out of State College swap suit.

State College Area School District to pay same-sex couple $42,500

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2011

BY ED MAHON

The State College Area School District will pay $42,500 to elementary school guidance counselor Kerry Wiessmann and her same-sex domestic partner to settle a lawsuit.

“Pursuing a civil rights lawsuit takes courage,” Andrew Shubin, an attorney for Wiessmann, said in a statement Monday. “As a result of this family’s efforts, the (d)istrict now provides equal health care benefits to same sex domestic partners. The plaintiffs in this case deserve our respect and appreciation for bringing this important issue into focus.”

The school board approved the settlement in a 9-0 vote. As part of the agreement, the district’s insurance provider will also pay $47,000 to cover the attorney fees for Wiessmann. In his statement, Shubin said the attorneys involved in the case included himself, Centre County attorney Justine Andronici, attorneys from the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton, and attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Board President Ann McGlaughlin announced some details of the plan prior to the vote, and the district released the full settlement agreement afterward.

McGlaughlin said the school board “and administration’s intent was to negotiate in good faith and reach a fair and suitable agreement with all parties. And we are confident that we have done that.”

The vote closes an legal dispute that began in May when Wiessmann filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging discrimination.

In court papers, Wiessmann was described as an elementary school guidance counselor in the district, who jointly owns a home and is raising two children with her domestic partner, Beth G. Resko. The district would not provide Resko with health care benefits, but would do so for opposite-sex domestic partners.

In July, the district and Wiessmann agreed to a consent order that dictated some of the terms the two sides would have to follow. The board approved providing benefits to all same-sex domestic partners that same month.

As part of the settlement, board members agreed to vote on a nondiscrimination policy, and they passed one in August with a 6-2 vote. Board members Rich Bartnik and Chris Small cast the no votes, and Gowen Roper was not present.

The final issue was how much Wiessmann was owed for damages, which was resolved through a mediation session held on Oct. 13 in Pittsburgh.

Solar Savings: Deals net local schools green energy, learning tools

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Caption: Project Manager Rick Vilello talks about the 2152 individual solar panels on the roof of Bald Eagle Area High School and Wingate Elementary Schools combined October 11, 2011. CDT/Nabil K. Mark

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2011

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BY ED MAHON

WINGATE — At one Bald Eagle Area School District building, solar panels cover more than half the roof. That’s equal to about two-and-a-half football fields— end zones included.

“It’s funny to think, Bald Eagle Area, in the middle of Centre County, one of the most rural school districts — and this is one of the most high-tech buildings in Pennsylvania,” district construction manager Rick Vilello said while standing atop the roof on a foggy day recently.

Lots of districts have tried to lower their energy bills — from building biomass boilers

to turning off teachers’ coffee pots in classrooms. But Bald Eagle Area and Bellefonte Area school districts have taken an unusual approach through a private partnership:

Solar panels provide about half the energy for the Bald Eagle Area middle and high school building, as well as the connected Wingate Elementary School. In the neighboring Bellefonte Area School District, two elementary schools — Pleasant Gap and Marion-Walker — and the high school have solar energy systems, too.

So far the savings from solar energy are modest — about $12,000 at Bald Eagle Area, and less than that in Bellefonte, based on an analysis of data provided by the districts.

But leaders there say the panels didn’t cost the districts or local taxpayers any money, serve as an education tool for students, provide certainty for future budgets, and could become bigger cost savers in future years.

“Really it was just an opportunity that came up during the renovation,” said Dan Fisher, superintendent for Bald Eagle Area, which has nearly finished a $26 million construction project at Wingate Elementary School and the middle and high school building. “And everything fit together.”

But not many Pennsylvania school districts are in a position to imitate Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Area.

“Solar, right now, is not attractive,” Damion Spahr, vice president of business development for the Harris-burg- based Reynolds Construction Management company, told Philipsburg-Osceola Area school board members during a meeting this month.

Two main barriers exist for schools. Federal and solar energy grants have diminished. And the market for solar renewable energy credits — which provide revenue for owners of solar panels — has plunged by about 90 percent since last year.

Carlisle Area School District leaders, for instance, told community members that their $2.35 million investment in a solar system would pay for itself within four years. But in today’s market, the system is bringing in less money than expected. As a result, the payback is looking closer to 10 years.

In Bald Eagle Area and Bellefonte, a partnership with a private finance and investment company, Smart Energy Capital, let the district avoid those barriers. They also aren’t affected by the downturn in the solar renewable energy credit market.

Both school districts don’t own the panels, didn’t pay to have them installed and aren’t responsible for maintaining them.

Instead, Smart Energy paid for the solar panels with help from about $2.2 million in state grants. The private company then installed the solar panels on district roofs.

“In essence, what we’re doing is leasing our roof space,” said Ken Bean, director of fiscal affairs for the Bellefonte Area School District.

Bellefonte school board OKs $4.5 million land purchase for athletic facilities

October 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Caption: The Bellefonte Red Raiders run out onto the field through a tunnel of cheerleaders for the game against Penns Valley to kick off their season at Rogers Stadium on Friday, September 2, 2011. CDT/Abby Drey 

PUBLISHED IN THE CENTRE DAILY TIMES

OCTOBER 5, 2011

BY ED MAHON

BELLEFONTE — School board members approved buying about 107 acres of land behind the Bellefonte Area High School building, a $4.5 million purchase that the district’s been trying to make for years and which could clear the path for a long sought-after track facility.

“This is a bold, historical decision tonight you’ll be making tonight,” board member Keith Hamilton told his colleagues before the vote. “I think it’s a sound decision. I endorse it a hundred percent. … And it will give the community a wonderful new foundation to work with.”

The district said $2.5 million for the purchase will come from its capital reserve fund and $2 million will come from taking on new debt. The district plans to start a capital campaign to finance the land purchase and the construction of new facilities.

Exactly what those new facilities will be hasn’t been decided, and board members said they’ll seek community input.

The vote to approve the land purchase was 8-0 in favor with board member David Van Buskirk absent. Members then approved borrowing $2 million debt at a fixed interest rate of 2.75 percent.

The need for more land has been a point of contention in the district since at least the late 1980s.

Read more: Bellefonte school board OKs $4.5 million land purchase.