The Panther Valley school board on Thursday agreed to borrow $5.7 million to finance the building of classrooms in what is now the swimming pool area of the high school.
The new rooms will allow the district to reconfigure student housing and to eliminate the use of portable classrooms at the elementary school in Nesquehoning.
School directors Bill Hunsicker, Roy Angst, Anthony DeMarco, Michelle Markovich, John Williams and President Jeff Markovich voted in favor of floating the bond issue to borrow the money.
School director Irene Genther was opposed, and Koreen Nalesnik was absent.
The vote to launch the project was done separately. Williams, after listening to several mothers express their concerns about having seventh-grade students in such proximity to high school seniors, moved to table the matter until more information was gathered.
Genther supported his motion. However, it died for lack of support. Hunsicker, Angst, DeMarco, Michelle Markovich, and Jeff Markovich voted in favor of the project.
Although plans have yet to be finalized, the new classrooms would likely house seventh- and eighth-grade students. The elementary school would then house kindergarten through third grade. Students in fourth through sixth grades would be housed in an "intermediate center" at the middle school.
Mothers Lori Dacey, Jeanine Knepper and Theresa Kokinda spoke at the start of Thursday's public meeting about their worries concerning having the classrooms in the high school, and about younger and older students riding the same buses.
Knepper said the thought of a seventh-grade students waiting at a bus stop with high school seniors was "horrifying." She works for the Palmerton Area School District, which houses grades seven through 12 together.
"There are a lot of problems with mixing those grades together," she said.
Dacey and Kokinda expressed similar concerns. Asked by Jeff Markovich, all three women said they would be fine with paying higher taxes for a separate building to house seventh- and eighth-grade students.
Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said the district was working on revising bus schedules so that seventh-grade students would not be riding with high school students. Further, the younger students would not be using the cafeteria and other rooms at the same time as the older students, she said.
The project, expected to be finished by January 2015 at the latest, will involve filling in the pool and removing the locker rooms, then renovating the space and filling it with classrooms at a cost of about $5.5 million to $5.8 million.
On July 17, representatives from The Architectural Studio, Allentown, detailed the project and its anticipated costs.
It will cost a projected $1,254,400 to renovate the 6,400 square feet of locker room space, and $3,217,095 to renovate 13,131 square feet of pool area, which is just off the cafeteria in the high school. The project will add 11 classrooms, and rooms for Special Education, storage and administration.
The construction costs are expected to come to $4,471,495. Adding another 20 percent for engineering and other "soft" costs will bring the total to $5,365,794. The architects added another 5 percent for possible cost increases for a total ranging from $5.6 million to $5.8 million.
At the July 17 meeting, school district financial consultant Jamie Doyle, director of The PFM Group, Harrisburg, said the district's current debt is about $25 million, and that it would cost the district about $244,000 a year to pay for the project. That would involve a single 1.69 mill tax increase, which she advised the board do in two increments.
The architects also advised the board to keep some of the portable classrooms, just in case they would be needed later.
Building the classrooms in the pool area was the least expensive of three options presented by the architects. The other two were to build an addition on to the middle school, at a cost of $16.2 million; a stand-alone building at either the middle or elementary school would have cost between $12 million and $16 million.
The board has for years wanted to move students out of the portable classrooms. When it closed the pool in January because it had become too expensive to operate, the board saw what most members believe was the best solution: to drain the 3,375-square-foot pool of its 163,167 gallons of water, and use the space for classrooms.
Genther has been a vocal opponent of closing the pool. She disputes the $75,000 a year cost estimate given by Hunsicker at the July 17 meeting. Genther believes the costs are around $51,232 a year.