On Monday evening, Lehighton Area School District hosted the third in a series of four meetings to discuss the new proposed building plan for the district. Several concerns of those who attended the meeting have been heard repeatedly throughout these presentations. Obviously, money is the "bottom line."
Addressing the approximately 55 interested community members in attendance, Supervisor of Plant Operations Joseph Hauser reviewed the building issues that have brought LASD to this point. He explained that the middle school building is experiencing significant problems – particularly with the boiler system.
According to Superintendent James Kraky, it currently costs more than twice as much to heat the middle school as it does to heat the high school. Hauser said that a geothermal system could save the district significantly.
Additional issues concern lack of insulation; pipes corroding; valve failures; leaking skylights in the gymnasium roof; heating difficulties in the auditorium; potentially dangerous bleachers in the gymnasium; replacement of the roof within the next five years; and asbestos throughout the building. However, Hauser pointed out that an asbestos inspection is conducted every six months.
Apparently, the high school is also experiencing mechanical failures on an increasing basis. Recently, the district paid $17,000 to repair just one of 65 individual heating systems in the building. Hauser reminded the crowd that the "new" high school is almost 20 years old.
In response to these concerns, the LASD Building Task Force Committee was formed to evaluate the building issues, review all options, and give 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.
Following the project, the current middle school would most likely be torn down and the land turned into athletic fields or sold.
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 $16,000,000 of the estimated $35,000,000 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.
According to Kraky, these figures are worst-case scenario.
Broken down, the annual cost per household for the average assessed home value of $44,250 would be $120 in additional taxes – 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. So, the average assessed home value of $44,250 is actually a home worth $88,500.
Business Manager Michael Malay, Jr. explained that state reimbursement would be approximately 30 percent of the project for just a new middle school. By servicing the needs of not only the middle school students, but also the high school students as well, the state reimbursement would be approximately 47 percent of the project. "This plan essentially doubles the reimbursement from the state from $8,000,000 (if a separate middle school were built) to $16,000,000," said Malay.
Kraky assured the crowd that the state could not pull out of its reimbursement obligation after the contract is signed. "If the state does not commit to this project, we will not go ahead with it," he said.
Architectural consultant Mark Barnhardt of EI Associates reminded the crowd that the state reimbursement only comes around once every 20 years. "Unfortunately, the school district did not put the buildings on a 20-year cycle. That's why they're in such bad shape," he said. "You can't just do nothing. Whether you renovate or build, there will be a financial impact for the school district."
According to Kraky, "We expect considerable savings by sharing certain facilities." 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 the students would eat in two separate cafeterias, there would be one kitchen facility to prepare the food. There would be two separate gymnasiums.
Several parents again voiced concern about the possibility of students in grades five through 12 being together in essentially the same building. "We certainly will not be co-mingling students," said Kraky. Although these students already ride the same bus, Kraky quoted Rudyard Kipling's "The Ballad of East and West" in assuring the crowd that while in school, "Never the twain shall meet."
Kraky noted that borrowing is now at its best rate in years. He said that if the rates go up even a half a percent, it will cost the taxpayers. In addition, construction costs are currently low. Some in the crowd responded that the unemployment rate and mortgage foreclosures are up right now.
Addressing the local economy, Kraky said, "We plan to use as much 'local workforce' from Lehighton and Carbon County as possible."
One concerned taxpayer suggested, "Upgrade an existing facility so that the tax burden is not so great."
It was noted that the former junior high school was deemed outdated, unusable, and too costly in the early 1990s. However, the building was later sold to the Borough of Lehighton and renovated. Today, it houses the head start program and several offices.
When asked about the "swamp land" issue at the current high school, Barnhardt again told 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.
Another topic of concern at the meeting was what many consider to be the sub-standard work of some of the construction that was done at the current high school when it was built 20 years ago. The crowd doesn't want to see that same thing happen again.
School Board President Dave Krause recounted the story of the high school construction as detailed by retired LASD administrator Gordon Ripkey at a previous meeting. Due to multiple renovations and repairs to the elementary schools and middle school at the same time as the construction of the high school, the district constructed an approximately $16,000,000 building for $10,000,000.
In order to assure building quality this time around, the figures include the position of a project manager who would oversee the building project.
Some in the crowd brought up the dire condition of the athletic fields and related facilities. "We're the laughing stock of the league," said one taxpayer.
Barnhardt responded, "While there is possible state reimbursement for a full renovation project, there is no state reimbursement on athletic fields." The reimbursement is based on the number of students in the building.
Krause reminded the crowd that this has been a long and thorough process. "We hired EI Associates in 2006," he said. In 2007, the school district did a feasibility study and prioritized. While the elementary schools are older than the middle school, the boiler in the middle school is older.
East Penn, Franklin, and Mahoning Elementary Schools were built in 1954. Shull-David Elementary School was constructed in 1959. Built in 1964-65, the current middle school building originally served as the high school for the district.
Using the feasibility study as its guide, the school district determined that the middle school is its "Achilles' heel." According to Kraky, if one of the elementary school boilers goes down, it would displace approximately 100 students. If the boiler at the middle school breaks down, it would affect approximately 800 students.
Krause identified six major concerns – system failures; capacity; safety; education and updated technology; energy savings; and cost.
"We didn't want to repeat the same mistakes from 20 years ago," he explained. "We took this important matter public a year ago and formed the committee."
"We don't want to raise taxes. This is simply the best option for our students," said Krause.
One more informational community meeting will be held to discuss the new proposed building plan. It is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at Lehighton Area High School. The public is encouraged to attend to learn more about the building proposal. A question and answer period will follow the extensive presentation.
This final meeting will also be a special meeting of Lehighton Area School Board. A vote on this proposed building project may take place at that time.
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.