More than 100 residents turned out Monday night to voice their thoughts on a proposed $32.5 million elementary center in Lehighton Area School District, which would house students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The two-and-a-half-hour workshop featured a presentation by Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver, EI Associates architect Mark Barnhardt, a standing room only crowd, public comments against the proposal and involvement from the Lehighton Borough police.
Cleaver said the district would borrow $52.5 million, which would cover a new elementary center, located behind the varsity softball field near Lehighton High School, and renovations to the middle and high schools.
"This would give us a $1.2 million operational savings and actually have a 0.3-mill reduction as it relates to the debt service payment," Cleaver said. "I know that is hard for people to wrap their heads around, but that is what we are looking at."
The other option, district officials have said, is to renovate Lehighton's four existing elementary schools, also at a projected $32.5 million.
Resident David Bradley suggested one of the reasons there would be no tax impact is because previous boards had "raised taxes to build a $16 million surplus."
"We already have a high rate of taxation," he said.
Police would later remove Bradley from the district's administration building after being warned several times by Board President Gloria Bowman not to interrupt the workshop.
"I want to ensure the safety of the people in this building," Cleaver said, referring to Bradley's removal.
Police had also been requested earlier in the workshop to remove signs brought in to the meeting room, a move that Bowman said was consistent with board policy.
Before the meeting, residents held signs in the parking lot stating their displeasure with the board. The rally went without incident, although police were present.
"We are here because we keep getting different answers from various people," said Frank Tamburri, who noted he isn't necessarily opposed to an elementary center.
"In the past we got numbers of $26 or $27 million for elementary school renovations and now it's up to the same as building a new school," he said.
Costs of project
Barnhardt said previous estimations included renovation costs at the four schools, but items were added such as an expansion of gymnasiums, additional classrooms and a kitchen expansion.
"We evaluated what the needs were for the project and the cost went up," he said.
During his presentation, Cleaver touted savings that the district could receive by building an elementary center. It has already been approved for a $2 million Alternative and Clean Energy grant because the school, if built, would be energy efficient.
"We would also have a maximum reimbursement from the Pennsylvania Department of Education of $7.99 million and nearly $800,000 in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design funding for building a green school," Cleaver said.
"You also have to look at the fact that we would attempt to sell or lease our current four elementary school buildings."
The district has also applied for $1.5 million and $1.07 million ACE grants for renovations at the middle and high schools respectively, but Cleaver acknowledged none of that money has been approved as it has with the proposed elementary center.
State reimbursement and LEED grants could also apply to those projects, as could money for renovating an existing building. The existing building payments would be $478,000 at the middle school and $683,000 at the high school.
Effect on students
Lehighton resident Gil Walters questioned how putting the elementary center next to the high school would affect students.
"I know we had a problem as my son didn't deal well with older students," Walters said. "And all this reimbursement you talk about is not guaranteed. If you don't get it, we'll get taxed."
Cleaver said the location of the school was the most "cost-effective option."
"It would allow us to share bus parking," he said.
Board member Rocky Ahner questioned whether that would be the only "shared service" between the high school and elementary center.
"My issue is that I don't think we're getting anything better than we had before," Ahner said. "We went from we were going to renovate the elementary schools and get three full-size gymnasiums to one gymnasium, and we don't know what this is going to look like."
The elementary center gymnasium would be 12,000 square feet with a folding wall down the middle that could split the room into two 6,000-square-foot courts, according to current plans.
"I just think we need to get it straightened out from the beginning," Ahner said.
"Are we shortchanging ourselves and we get down the road and figure out the number for an elementary center is really $45 million to do it right? We should learn from the past. We had a high school that should have cost $16 million and we spent $12 million, and taxpayers have been paying for the past 20 years."
Many taxpayers don't want the elementary center, Thomas Merkle told the board, but they are afraid to come to meetings for fear the decision is a done deal.
"We need to keep coming," Merkle said.
"When people stand together, there is nothing we can't do."
Monday's workshop yielded only one official vote, aside from adjournment.
A standing-room-only crowd forced manyresidents to stand and watch from outside the meeting room, peering through a glass window, trying to hear what was being said.
Board member Hal Resh made a motion, approved by the board, that the meeting be moved from the board room, or more chairs be added, if the crowd exceeded the amount of seats.
"These people can't be standing for that long," Resh said.
For all the people against the elementary center, Bowman said she has received reinforcement from a lot of residents that the board is "headed in the right direction."
Cleaver said the majority of the board is not in favor of putting the building decision up to a voter referendum despite requests from residents.
"It is a legal option, it's just not the position of the board to do it at this time," he said.