Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Choncek Clarifies Position

I’ve been asked to clarify my position regarding the current issues facing the Armstrong School District. Most of what I’m about to state has been supported by the documented decisions I’ve made over the last 3 ½ years serving as School Board Director.

First and absolutely foremost, education has to be the major focus of this district in general, and of the School Board in particular. All too often, school board debate is dominated by discussions about “buildings” instead of the critical issues pertaining to education. The board needs to facilitate a shift in emphasis from facilities to education.

Unfortunately, because of the current school board majority’s action to borrow $82 million to renovate Elderton, Ford City and Kittanning High Schools, my immediate attention has to be directed towards further discussions about buildings. It’s important to state that I do not support the borrowing of $82 million for the current renovation projects. This is reflected and reinforced through my voting record in which I voted against any matter supporting these renovations. I have clearly stated my reasons for opposing this plan, but will briefly review those reasons below:

1.  Most people would agree that this is a bad time to borrow money. Contrary to the opinion of those who support the renovations, these are uncertain economic times. Further, with a looming pension crisis and significant budget cuts from state subsidies, this is the time to be fiscally responsible. It is not the time to be accruing additional debt.

2.  Furthermore, student enrollment is declining across the district. It is expected to decline in the future according to the Department of Education’s most recent enrollment projection report. Because of this continual decline, buildings are underutilized while the cost to educate students has steadily increased. It doesn’t make sense to invest money to renovate schools that are already extremely underutilized.

3.  Members of the current Board majority have made several claims that we (as a Board) haven’t addressed the needs of school district facilities in over 30 years. That statement is completely inaccurate. In fact, over the past 15 years, school district documents show that we’ve spent over $7.5 million on capital improvements that included such projects as roof and window replacements, upgrades to HVAC, electrical and phone systems, repairs to masonry and other structural components. To say that we’ve ignored the buildings is simply another poor attempt to trick the taxpayers into thinking that the renovations are a good idea.

4.  Finally, I reject this renovation plan simply based on the fact that the plan calls for little improvement to actual educational space. The plan focuses on gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias. While these areas may be important to the overall development of students, they hardly justify the expense of an $82 million bond disguised as a project to improve education.

Thus, I have very good reasons for opposing the renovation plan put forth by the current board majority.

At the time of this writing, the board majority is desperately attempting to place a referendum question on the ballot asking voters whether they support building a $155 million comprehensive high school. This is a sham. To me, it demonstrates the complete lack of respect the board majority has for the taxpayers. I oppose the building of this comprehensive high school at this time for the same reason I oppose the renovation plan. In other words, in these uncertain economic times, this is the time to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers. It is not the time to make hasty (and costly) decisions just because you feel as though you’re being backed into a corner. In addition, building a new comprehensive high school was never really on the table for discussion at any school board meeting during my tenure.

I strongly wish that I could provide the voters a definite answer as to what I would do with the bond money should I be re-elected. Unfortunately, there are just too many unknown variables to do so at this time. For example, some critical questions that need answers as part of our due diligence before proceeding include:

1.  How much of the bond money will have already been spent by the time the Board re-organizes?

2.  If one option is to return the money borrowed, what is the true cost to the district? What penalties are incurred as a result?

3.  What are other possible uses for the bond money besides renovations or building new? For example, is it feasible to use bond money to pay off existing debt?

How, may you ask, am I going to deal with this difficult predicament this district finds itself in? If I don’t support the renovations and I don’t support building a new comprehensive high school at this time, then what do I support? I support thoughtful decision-making using accurate data and sound advice from the administration, as well as from ethical and reputable legal and financial counsel. Thus, my ultimate goal is to use these tools to make the most financially prudent decision for the taxpayers. I trust that my prior experience on the board and the resulting decisions I have made will provide the voters enough information to support me in the upcoming primary election.