AASD board candidates solidifying views on project
With the Altoona Area School Board election two months out, candidates who will inherit the final say on whether to scrap or sign onto an $88 million high school project are solidifying their opinions.
There are four seats up for election on the nine-member board and six candidates on the November ballot.
Incumbent John Donley, who is running for another term, has championed the project as board president and continues to support it.
Candidate Rick Hoover said he favors the project after having met with the Superintendent Charles Prijatelj.
Candidates David Francis and Ed Kreuz remain as opposed as they have been since the primary election.
The top vote-getter in the primary election, Kelly Irwin Adams, said she remains unconvinced by the current plan but is unsure of alternatives.
“We need to address the issue of overcrowding and create an optimal learning environment for the district’s students,” Adams said. “But I’m not sure an $88 million price tag is the answer. We need to remain fiscally responsible to taxpayers. But as to the alternatives, I don’t have the answer to that right now.”
Candidate Robin Reese could not be reached for comment on Friday. But when asked in a Mirror questionnaire before the primary about the project, she responded: “We must take action to make our schools secure and up to code for our children’s safety. According to the Facilities Study done on the current high school, there are several areas — from security to building infrastructure — that are in critical condition and need to be fixed within a year.”
“That will cost money, and any money we spend must be spent in ways that benefit the taxpayers, the students and ultimately the growth of our community,” Reese wrote. “I believe that investing in the new school could save our district money in the long run because the facilities will be new and the bottom line budgets are determinable. Fixing older buildings can open up undetermined costs, including years of maintenance. An additional benefit to the new building will be the added classroom spaces that will allow first-class STEM and other learning opportunities for our students.”
In the May primary, Francis and Adams won nominations on both the Republican and Democratic ballots. Kreuz and Hoover captured Republican nominations, while Donley and Reese won spots on the Democratic ballot.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district, registration figures from the May primary show.
The current composition of the board seems to have more members in favor of the project. But two potential supporters, Dick Lockard and John Klingeman, chose not to run for re-election. One member against it, Judy Berryman, is also not running for re-election.
Two of five board members not up for election — Sharon Bream and Ron Johnston — have opposed the project, while the remaining incumbents — Dutch Brennan, Bill Ceglar and Wayne Hippo — have supported the construction plan.
Considering the potential for Adams, Francis and Kreuz to win the vacant seats in November, Donley said they will learn a difficult lesson if they vote against the construction project.
“If they vote no, they are delaying the inevitable. If you delay it, then it will cost more in the future,” he said.
Donley, Kreuz and Adams attended the public hearing on Wednesday where residents had a chance to give their opinions on the project.
“There were some good points made on both sides. … Despite what board member Johnston stated at the last board meeting, there are people in favor,” Donley said.
Kreuz said he looks forward to getting more information if elected.
“I am against the new school project. I do not trust what Dr. Prijatelj and the administration are saying, and if I am elected to the board, I will have more access to the information to make my own decision. I think we need to retain teachers and spend money on providing the best curriculum and resources available. I acknowledge that we have an overcrowding problem in the elementary, and I am willing to take steps to correct that but not by building an $88 million school,” he said.
Hoover and Francis did not attend the hearing on Wednesday.
“I talk to people every day about it,” Hoover said. “And after sitting down with the administration, it looks like it makes sense. … The numbers that are out there are astronomical looking. We would have to go through the budget line by line. But the new school plan looks good, and it makes sense. There obviously needs to be improvements to the school. The B Building is falling apart,” Hoover said. “I would be a ‘yes’ hypothetically at this point.”
Francis said he did not attend the hearing because he committed to attend a fundraiser.
He said he would vote no to the project as it stands. He recalled a meeting he and other candidates had with Prijatelj after they had won the primary.
“I told him that the price tag was too high. Look at the houses for sale here. There was a county reassessment. Taxes have gone up. How do you justify spending $88 million on a new school when graduating classes are going down?”
The district administration has given reasons for the plans to construct a new B Building and renovate the A Building repeatedly over the past year: overcrowded schools and classrooms districtwide, an outdated 90-year-old building and a need to improve students’ educational experiences, especially for ninth-graders who have shown a high rate of leaving the district before 10th grade, administrators said.
“It’s going to be expensive,” Prijatelj said. “When I was hired, the Mirror printed an op-ed piece that talked about the challenges I would face. We can’t kick those challenges down the road. Some people got it Wednesday, but some
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.