The Lehighton Area School District began the first of what is expected to be a series of conversations about the middle school renovation, or replacement, project proposed on December 1.

The middle school building task force committee, which consists of teachers, parents, principals, administrators and community members, started its first official meeting by reviewing the presentation that LEI Asssociates, the district's architectural consultant, gave at the December meeting. Last night's meeting was the first for the task force, though three separate meetings were scheduled and later cancelled due to inclement weather.

The meeting followed an informal format and ideas were encouraged from everyone, but the architectural consultants who designed the district buildings' feasibility study made it clear that doing nothing was not an option.

Superintendent James Kraky warned the committee that "our problem is not the educational system, it's the plant. The middle school's heating system could go down at a moment's notice."

The options fit into four categories, but intentionally left the interpretation of the plans open-ended. The main concern of the committee must first be to choose a plan of action that would best benefit the educational needs of the district's students. It will then be up to the administration to decide how much can be done with the resources afforded them.

Because bond issues occur on 20 year schedules and many mechanical systems and roofs have approximately 20 year life spans, the state offers renovation and building reimbursements on 20 year cycles.

A school district can only take a bite of the state's educational facilities reimbursements once in that 20 year period, and the Lehighton school district hasn't taken a bite in quite some time.

Because the district failed to take advantage of these opportunities in the past, the cost of building renovation is increased.

The main concern among community members, beside any effect to municipal tax millage, is the fate of the current middle school campus. This is a concern that all building options attempt to address.

The first option is to build a new middle school before vacating the current facility, which could then be sold. The elementary schools would be renovated as needed.

The second option consists of converting the middle school into an elementary school while building a new middle school campus. In this option, the elementary schools would be consolidated into one or two buildings.

Many members of the community in attendance felt that the small township schools contributed to a larger sense of neighborhood identity. Small neighborhood schools can also have positive impacts to real estate values.

The third option includes building a new middle school and leveling the old one at an approximate cost of $250,000. Elementary schools would be renovated and updated as needed, but would stay at their current locations.

The last option is the sole one that requires the building of no new facilities and calls only for renovations and additions to existing facilities.

Some teachers considered this last option untenable, since construction would seriously disrupt students and create a chaotic and less-than-safe environment.

The next meeting, which is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. March 8 in the middle school library, will begin to coalesce around a specific plan and begin to approach more specific goals.