AASD board needs more transparency

The Altoona Area School Board’s recent vote in favor of purchasing a bank building at Sixth Avenue and 12th Street probably surprised a lot of people.

While the board, in prior months, has discussed a possible location for its administrative offices that was not included in the section of the high school now under construction, the proposed purchase of the nearby Investment Savings Bank Building didn’t surface publicly until the school board’s Feb. 4 meeting.

And what happened at that meeting? The school directors talked about a few pros and cons, then voted 5-4 to pay $710,000 for the bank building and about $15,000 in closing fees for the transaction.

And when did the taxpayers — whose money will be used to pay these bills — find out about the purchase? The next day when the Mirror ran a front page story about the board’s action.

It wouldn’t be unusual for school district administrators and board members to say that prior to voting, they discussed the bank building purchase during executive sessions.

The state’s Sunshine Law, which requires local governments to conduct business in public, has some exceptions, including one allowing governing bodies to discuss real estate purchases behind closed doors. The common thinking is that if the governing body is going to purchase a property, it wouldn’t want to expose its interest and negotiating tactics.

But what happened here is an example of what’s wrong with that kind of thinking: We taxpayers had no say in the purchase of this bank building, and we don’t know if it’s a good deal or not.

We know from prior school board discussions that options were being explored for the longtime administrative offices that will be eliminated when the 90-year-old “B” section of the high school is torn down.

At one time, the board talked about making them part of the new construction project, but decided against that to maximize classroom space.

A few months ago, the board spoke about purchasing the Pacifico Bakery building on Fifth Avenue and the rental of the downtown Vipond building. In November, board members also acknowledged a district resident’s proposal that would repurpose the “B” building and leave the administrative offices intact.

But until the school board’s Feb. 4 meeting, no one said anything publicly about buying a nearly 66-year-old bank building that may need to be renovated.

Shortly after that story broke, Altoona resident Michael Gannon felt compelled to write a letter to the Altoona Mirror, published Feb. 12.

“Yes taxpayers, we’re screwed again, harpooned by the big AASD tax-and-spend five” he wrote in reference to the five school directors — President Dutch Brennan, Bill Ceglar, Kelly Irwin Adams, Wayne Hippo and Rick Hoover — who voted in favor of purchasing the bank building.

Gannon told taxpayers they’ll be in a position to do something during this year’s election. That’s true, but we’d like to see a lot more transparency starting now, not only from the five who voted in favor but also from the four who voted against: Ed Kreuz, Dave Francis, Sharon Bream and Ron Johnston.

As taxpayers, we don’t like to be blindsided by any governing body that chooses to vote on a major expense or initiative after limited public discussion. We’re the ones paying the bills and in this case, we deserved to know more about a financial commitment for the school district that won’t stop with the building’s purchase price.

So, if you’re a member of any local governing board and leave a closed-door meeting with information of importance to local taxpayers, speak up. No part of the Sunshine Law prohibits any elected official from talking about the subject of an executive session or from voicing his or her opinion.

Our community needs strong voices on our governing boards. Those who cannot speak up and tell the taxpayers what’s coming up shouldn’t run for election.

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