Much of the discussion during Wednesday evening's community informational meeting about the new proposed building plan for Lehighton Area School District came down to the "bottom line" – money.
In reviewing the building issues that LASD is facing, supervisor of Plant Operations Joseph Hauser explained that the middle school building is experiencing significant problems. These include an antiquated boiler system; lack of insulation; pipes corroding; valve failures; leaking skylights in the gymnasium roof; heating difficulties in the auditorium; potentially dangerous bleachers in the gymnasium; and asbestos throughout the building.
"Asbestos in and of itself is not dangerous," Superintendent James Kraky pointed out. "It's when you disturb it that you have problems."
Every six months, an asbestos inspection is conducted.
Hauser also addressed the roof on the middle school building that was last replaced in 1988.
"We'll have to replace that roof within the next five years," he said.
Built in 1965, the current middle school building originally served as the high school for the district.
According to Hauser, the current high school is also experiencing mechanical failures on an increasing basis. Recently, the district paid $17,000 to repair just one of many individual heating systems in the building. Hauser reminded those in attendance that the "new" high school is 20 years old.
In response to these concerns, the LASD Building Task Force Committee was charged with evaluating the building issues, reviewing all options, and giving the school board direction on behalf of the community. This committee is made up of approximately 30 interested community members, teachers, administrators, and school board members.
After meeting over a 10-month period, the committee has proposed a building plan that would add on to the existing high school building. This would allow the high school and middle school students to share some core space – while retaining their respective separate educational space.
EI Associates estimates that if the district decides to take no action, the costs for maintenance projects for the middle school over the next five years will be $12,700,000 – of which there will be no state reimbursement. This represents approximately 1.35 additional mills to current taxes.
If the district decides to renovate and expand the high school, the state would reimburse the district approximately $16 million of the estimated $35 million project over the life of the bond. This represents approximately 2.72 additional mills to current taxes. These figures are assuming that one mill equals $352,000. Broken down, the annual cost per household for the average assessed home value of $44,250 would be $120 – a daily cost of 33 cents. Taxes would go up in incremental steps – not all at one time.
It was pointed out that taxing is based on 50 percent of the assessed value of a home. Therefore, the average assessed home value of $44,250 is actually a home worth $88,500.
Business manager Michael Malay Jr. addressed the approximately 40 interested community members in attendance.
"State reimbursement would be much higher under this plan since we would be servicing the needs of not only the middle school students, but also the high school students," Malay said. "This plan doubles the reimbursement from the state from $8,000,000 (if a separate middle school were built) to $16,000,000."
One concerned taxpayer warned, "Some of these people here tonight – taxpayers – may lose their homes if taxes increase significantly."
"Taxpayers have representation through the school board," school board President Dave Krause assured the crowd. "We represent you. We do what is best for the students and the community."
Architectural consultant Mark Barnhardt of EI Associates reminded the attendees that the state reimbursement only comes around once every 20 years.
"So, bottom line … do we fix a 50-year-old building and receive no state reimbursement or do we build a new building and take advantage of the state reimbursement that comes around once every 20 years?
"It's going to cost money either way," he continued. "Taxes will still go up either way."
Some in the audience warned that there are usually unforeseen problems that could significantly increase costs and the time line. According to Kraky, this is already built into the estimates – noting that these figures are worst-case scenario. Also, the district plans to hire a project manager who will oversee the building project and handle such issues on a daily basis.
Another topic of concern at the meeting was what many consider to be the substandard work of some of the construction that was done at the current high school when it was built 20 years ago. Taxpayers don't want to see that thing happen again.
Retired LASD administrator Gordon Ripkey addressed the crowd's concerns about this issue. As the senior administrator in the school district at the time, Ripkey was charged to oversee the high school building project. He recalls that approximately $16 million was needed for construction. However, at the time, the district was also making renovations and repairs to the elementary schools and middle school.
"Essentially, the district ran out of money," Ripkey said. "Consequently, there was only $10 million to construct a $16 million school. So, corners had to be cut."
Concerning the proposed building project, he advised, "If you're going to do it, do it right."
When asked about the "swamp land" issue at the current high school, Barnhardt assured the crowd that the problem will be addressed during the PlanCon process. When a school district undertakes a major construction project and seeks reimbursement from the state, a comprehensive process known as PlanCon is initiated.
"One of the advantages of this building proposal is the sharing of certain facilities," said Kraky.
The high school and middle school would share an auditorium, library space, media center, and band rooms – as well as locker rooms, nurse's office and art facilities. While students would eat in two separate cafeterias, there would be one kitchen facility to prepare the food.
Several parents voiced concern about the possibility of students in grades five through 12 being together in essentially the same building.
"We will maximize multiple use as much as possible," said Kraky. "However, we certainly will not be co-mingling students." He reminded the audience that these students already ride the same bus.
However, in school, he said, "Never the twain shall meet."
Krause said that another matter to consider is safety.
"Our current facilities are not conducive to a safe environment for students," said Krause.
"The plan is to put our money back into the community," school board member Wayne Wentz added. "We will use as much 'local workforce' as possible."
Kraky summed up.
"There is never a 'good' time to do a building project," he said, "but there is a 'right' time to do a project."
There are two more informational community meetings that will be held in the district to discuss the new proposed building plan. They are scheduled for Monday, Nov. 7 at Mahoning Elementary School and Thursday, Nov. 17 at Lehighton Area High School. This final meeting will also be a special meeting of Lehighton Area School Board. A vote on the proposed building project may take place at that time.
These meetings will begin at 7 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend one or both of these remaining informational meetings to learn more about the building proposal. A question and answer period will follow the extensive presentation.
Minutes from the LASD Building Task Force Committee meetings and the building feasibility study can be found on the "Files and Documents" page under "District" of the LASD website – www.Lehighton.org.