On a 5-4 vote, Lehighton Area School Board directed the District Stadium Committee to meet with School District Engineers Barry Isset & Associates, Inc. to begin planning to replace the existing football stadium.

The action would replace the current football stadium located at Beaver Run Road and Mahoning Street in Lehighton with a new multi-purpose stadium to be built between the district Administration Building and the high school, near the district's existing field hockey and track site.

The Stadium Committee will be responsible to develop a proposal for the construction of the new stadium with a budget and financial estimates for final ratification by the school board.

"Everyone wants the best for our community, including myself," said School Board President Rocky Ahner. "I've always felt that we have the best staff and the greatest community in the state of Pennsylvania. And why shouldn't we have the best?"

Ahner, however, who opposed the measure to go ahead with planning for a stadium, was disappointed with the final vote.

"As a board member, there are three steps that were missing that I feel are needed to make a rational decision – set a long-term plan on facilities and education; study the financial impact on the taxpayer; and give the public all the information to get their feedback before making any decision."

Voting in favor of the stadium measure were Jack Finnegan, Dave Krause, Larry Stern, Wayne Wentz, and Andrew Yenser. Ahner, William Hill, Hal Resh, and Thomas Zimmerman voted against it.

Prior to this vote, Resh had made a motion that the district, through its Stadium Committee, should continue to study the situation involving the current football stadium in order to make the most informed decision regarding its refurbishing and/or replacement. However, this motion died for lack of a second.

Three options

Previously, school directors had commissioned Barry Isset & Associates, Inc. to present a stadium feasibility study to the board and the public for questions and discussion. Engineers Rob Sarnowski and Timothy Sisock presented three options for consideration.

The first option involves modifying the existing site. This would include new home and visitor grandstands for a seating capacity of 1,475; a new press box; a new paved pathway around the field for occupant accessibility and emergency vehicle access; bringing it up to the standards of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)- accessible site; and a new entrance on the north side of the stadium.

The anticipated budget of option one – which includes demolition; grandstands; NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Act) permitting; site work; and retaining wall – is projected to be between $2,500,000 and $2,800,000.

Option two involves re-developing the existing site and re-orienting the field by turning it on an angle. This would include new home and visitor grandstands for a seating capacity of 2,500; a new press box; a new home and visitor field house and restrooms; a new paved pathway around the field for occupant accessibility and emergency vehicle access; re-orienting the field; re-align and seed the existing field; bring it up to the standards of an ADA-accessible site; and a new entrance on the north side of the stadium.

The anticipated budget of this option – which includes demolition; grandstands; NPDES permitting; site work; retaining walls; and new structures – is projected to be between $5,000,000 and $5,800,000.

The third option presented by Barry Isset & Associates, Inc. involves developing a new site near Lehighton Area High School. This would include new home and visitor grandstands for a seating capacity of 2,500; a new press box; a new field house structure; a new storage/restroom structure; new fencing to provide a secured site; new stadium lighting; a multi-purpose turf field; and construction as an ADA-accessible site.

The anticipated budget of option three – which includes demolition; grandstands; NPDES permitting; site work; artificial turf; and new structures – is projected to be between $4,700,000 and $5,430,000.

Stadium history

The current Lehighton Football Stadium – then known as "the new athletic field" – was constructed in 1939-1940. It was officially dedicated on Oct. 12, 1940.

Interestingly, when the district purchased the Williamson property on Beaver Run Road and Mahoning Street in 1929 with the idea of building a new high school and athletic field, the original plans called for the field to run east and west – using the natural contour of the land to the north for bleachers. Instead, the field was eventually constructed to run north and south.

James Wentz of Lehighton recalls running out of the current field house onto the field as a freshman football player in 1944. He went on to become a longtime teacher, administrator, and coach in the school district.

"I was involved in the football program from 1956 until I retired in 1988 and I continued as a volunteer until just a few years ago," said Wentz. "People come here and get their impression about our community from our sports and school facilities."

He continued, "It's embarrassing. If nothing else, a new field house is a necessity.

"Do the right thing for all of your kids and all of your programs. Don't do what's been done for the past 50 years – putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound," concluded Wentz.

Lehighton Area Middle School world history teacher Mark Maholick urged the school board to keep their priorities in order.

"There are a lot of things that need improvement throughout the district," said Maholick. "This new facility should be prioritized."

The school board plans to take a close look at possible renovations to all of the buildings throughout the district.

Following a recent presentation by architectural consultants Mark Barnhardt and Leah Shiley of EI Associates, the school board authorized the submission of updated PlanCon paperwork to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

When a school district undertakes a major construction project and seeks reimbursement from the state, a comprehensive process known as PlanCon is initiated.

PlanCon is an acronym for PLANning and CONstruction Workbook. It is a set of forms and procedures used to apply for reimbursement from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The PlanCon forms are designed to document a local school district's planning process; provide justification for a project to the public; ascertain compliance with state laws and regulations; and establish the level of state participation in the cost of the project.

Financing the project

According to LASD Superintendent Jonathan J. Cleaver, "This (stadium project) is not an eligible reimbursement project. The board has made it public that they want to do things correctly."

He continued, "Complete renovations to our buildings may cost more than what we are expecting to receive in reimbursement from the state once all of the projects are complete."

One possible option to finance this multi-purpose stadium project is the use of the fund balance.

"There are many pros and cons with using the fund balance that have all been explained to the board in our finance meeting and from presentations by PFM (Public Financial Management), which is our district's financial group used when financing or re-financing bonds," said Cleaver.

Another financing option is to borrow the money over an extended period of time.

"If the (stadium) project is moved to another location, we can look into the possibility of phasing the projects over several years," said Cleaver. "However, there can be a lot of financial scenarios and planning issues that come into play."

"The board has a huge responsibility of serving the students of Lehighton – along with the community and taxpayers,"said Cleaver. "One thing we guarantee is that this board will look at the 'whole picture' and keep all 2,485 students' and the local taxpayers' best interest in mind."

For the entire PowerPoint presentation by Barry Isset & Associates, Inc., visit the LASD website at www.Lehighton.org. Click on "Files and Documents" under "Quick Links." Click on "District." The presentation can be found under "Building Feasibility Study."

The next regular meeting of the Lehighton Area School Board is scheduled for Monday, October 22 at 7 p.m. at the LASD Administration Building, Conference Room A. The public is encouraged to attend.