Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Two districts approve funding for STEM center

by and on October 13, 2015 10:59 AM

On a divided vote Monday, the Indiana Area school board approved a cash contribution to help close a gap in funding for construction of the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center and the Indiana County STEM Academy at Indiana County Technology Center.

The directors voted 5 to 3, with one abstaining, to donate $722,800 toward the $9 million project.

At the same time last night, the Purchase Line school board passed its motion to commit to the project. The initial price tag for the district to buy into the two programs is $146,800.

ICTC representatives first asked the Indiana board for funds on Aug. 24, the first of a series of requests to the seven member school districts to underwrite $2 million for the center.

Over the past seven weeks, and in the minutes before the vote, Indiana board members and residents debated the academic opportunities for students versus the financial burden on the budget.

Proponents argued the center would help develop an employable workforce while opponents questioned how it would fit into Indiana’s curriculum.

Dave Coleman, of White Township, representing the Indiana County Manufacturers Consortium, and Scott Deutsch, of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining in Burrell Township, supported the STEM and Challenger project during the public comment period.

“I look for technically sound people and I think you need to find a way to bring around a new business-learning model as a catalyst to the Indiana economy,” Coleman said. “I hope you’ll endorse and embrace it and grow the county ... and show western Pennsylvania how to grow.”

“One of the things we see in manufacturing all over the nation is the importance of this STEM tidal wave that is overcoming all of us,” Deutsch said. “It’s having an impact on the next-generation workforce that we’re developing in our schools. Having that ability to have hands-on learning in STEM Academy learning is fantastic.”

Indiana resident Ben Ford — the husband of school board member Hilliary Creely — said the project would create jobs for teachers and provide opportunities for students.

“It’s easy to argue for the status quo, but standing still never won a race or changed the life of a child,” Ford said. “The benefit that it would bring to the region would be cheap at twice the proposed Indiana Area School District investment.”

Former school board member Walter Schroth, a candidate for re-election on Nov. 3, compared the advent of STEM education to the development of the Land Grant college system in the mid-19th century.

As Land Grant colleges intended to educate people for “professions that were practical at that time,” Schroth said, the Challenger Center and STEM Academy would meet today’s needs.

“If we are to see the county prosper, we must come together to prepare our students for those new professions that are now practical for our time.”

Douglas Steve, also a former director seeking re-election next month, repeated his position that an equal or better STEM program could be started at Indiana Area Senior High School, and district parent Stephanie Jozefowicz questioned whether the district should spend the money on more important things.

“As a taxpayer within this district … are we really going to get the biggest bang for our buck in spending district money in this way?” Jozefowicz asked. With a projected $1 million deficit in 2016-17, “given all the known needs of the district, when it comes to students with disabilities and an increase next year in student-teacher ratios, is this the one thing … that you’re willing to stake a tax increase on?”

In addition to the request for $722,800 of construction money, ICTC has asked Indiana to promise to enroll and pay tuition for 12 high school students in the STEM Academy, and to send 18 classes of elementary and junior high students to take part in day long “missions” at the Challenger Center.

Steve and Jozefowicz said district officials have discussed an increase in the property tax to pay for the Challenger Center and STEM Academy’s future operating costs. But board member Robert Gongaware, chairman of the finance committee, said the district can easily afford the cost of borrowing money to back the project now, and other directors said the board could later decide whether to limit the district’s support or participation in the center’s programs.

Director Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro said the ICTC had drafted a conservative financial plan for the project, and said it should begin generating profits in the third year of operation and possibly provide tax credits to the member districts, “which would in turn lower our debt service so that the number we’re floating right now would be much less.”

“I see the future of education being such that we have to start consolidating services as much as we can,” Cuccaro said. “And we have to start thinking about competing on a county level for the jobs of the future.”

Gongaware said countywide support of the project provides an economy of scale.

“The ability to leverage government grants, the fundraising, and the economies of scale for capital and labor makes this affordable,” he said. “I don’t see this as a replacement at all of our current offerings, but I see it as an expansion and an enhancement.

“I’m familiar with the current budget and I think there are ways we can make this affordable. We just spent $100,000 on new band uniforms and nobody batted an eye, and here we have an opportunity to actually improve the education of our students.”

Indiana board President Thomas Harley, Vice President John Barbor, and board members Cuccaro, Gongaware and Creely voted for the contribution.

Directors Deborah Clawson, Diana Paccapaniccia and John Uccellini voted no. Brian Petersen, the chairman of the academic committee, offered the motion but abstained from the vote.

At the Purchase Line board meeting, the only “no” vote was from Scott Gearhart. Voting “yes” were Mary Ann Pittman, James Stiffler, Kevin Smith, David Syster, James McMullen, Sandra Fyock and John Nichols. William Pearce was absent.

The enrollment commitment binds Purchase Line to send six elementary groups to “missions” at the Challenger Learning Center and four students to the STEM academy during the first year of each program’s operation.

ICTC representatives presented their request to Purchase Line Sept. 14.

There was little discussion Monday amongst Purchase Line board members. Gearhart wanted clarification on the accounting action that would be taken after a commitment. Business Manager Abbey Romagna said ICTC hasn’t been clear about how they will want the payment, in lump sum or in payments.

McMullen said it was a good chance for the board to invest in Purchase Line students’ future.

“If we are really interested in trying to achieve the maximum benefits for our kids in the Purchase Line School District, this is another opportunity that we will have to have some of our children excel and assist them in their future careers,” McMullen said. “To me, it’s $146,800 well spent.”

At the Indiana Area school board meeting, Uccellini said he regretted that the Challenger and STEM projects were connected.

“I’d hate to see both of them go down if any district would vote no on this,” Uccellini said. “But it’s the short term commitment to the STEM Academy I am concerned about. … The cost of additional students going to ICTC for any reason would have an impact on things we would be able to do in this district.”

Paccapaniccia said following the vote that she is not opposed to the facilities, but was not satisfied with explanations of the courses that would be offered at the STEM center.

Petersen said he struggled with the request and couldn’t decide how to vote.

“It’s a great opportunity and I think it comes at a horrible time,” Petersen said. “Since I’ve been on the board, we’ve cut $2 million or $3 million from our budget and it has been very painful. I’m sure there other requests for great things that we haven’t been able to fund.

“I’d hate to see our motion fail … when some of the other county schools haven’t had a chance to vote on it yet.”

Cuccaro has backed the project for three years, since representatives of the Houston based Challenger Foundation encouraged local leaders to set up the first Challenger Learning Center in Pennsylvania.

Before being elected to the school board, Cuccaro led a feasibility study that in 2013 recommended bidding for a Challenger franchise.

Almost 50 Challenger centers have been developed since the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, when survivors of the seven shuttle astronauts dedicated themselves to promoting space education through the centers that simulate NASA’s Mission Control and the labs on the International Space Station.

Officials estimated up to $3 million in startup costs for the Challenger Center, a figure easily covered by early grants and contributions. In August 2013, ICTC leaders agreed to host the center and proposed to combine it with a STEM Academy under the roof of a two-story addition to the tech center along Hamill Road in White Township.

The combined cost at that time was estimated at $7 million to $8 million.

Two years of work to market the project mustered $5 million of government grants and local contributions.

When ICTC Executive Director Eric Palmer and education consultant Rod Green began approaching area school boards in August, they said the project needs $2 million from the school districts to leverage another $2 million from potential donors, and to prevent government agencies from canceling earlier grants that haven’t been used.

Palmer attended the Indiana board meeting Monday and monitored the vote at Purchase Line in an exchange of text messages.

“I’m excited that both Indiana and Purchase Line took the first steps and a leadership position in bringing this opportunity to Indiana County students,” Palmer said. “The only way we’re going to be able to continue to provide our rural students these world class opportunities is through collaboration and sharing of resources, as this has the potential to be not only an educational benefit to seven districts but an economic development catalyst for our entire county.”

Boards in five other districts in the county have yet to vote on the ICTC requests for support. Palmer had asked for decisions by Nov. 1.

“We’re still acting with urgency,” he said. “But Nov. 1 is a target. We are at the front of the line for the RCAP (Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program) funds, but there are 100 other projects behind us that may be more ready than us. We feel their breath on the back of our neck. But we need to make sure we continue to move forward, and not give them any reason to doubt that we are going to complete this project.”

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.

Sean Yoder is a staff writer at The Indiana Gazette. He covers Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Clymer Borough, and the Penns Manor and Purchase Line area school districts. He graduated from IUP with a degree in journalism and from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a degree in video production.
Next Article
INDIANA AREA: Charter school payments withheld
October 13, 2015 10:58 AM
INDIANA AREA: Charter school payments withheld
Disclaimer: Copyright © 2017 Indiana Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.