A proposed Lehighton Area School District elementary center is a long way from becoming a reality.

In fact, Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver said the building, which would house Lehighton's K-5 students, wouldn't open until 2017 in a best-case scenario.

"Planning starts now, however," Cleaver explained.

That is why a group of district parents, community members, board members, administrators, teachers and support staff gathered Wednesday night for the first of several school design committee meetings.

"We wanted to get as many people involved in the process as possible," Cleaver said.

"They're going to think outside the box. We're not creating this building for kids tomorrow. This is going to be several years down the road."

The district has discussed its major building projects back to 2006 and most recently has debated whether to build a new elementary center or renovate its four existing elementary schools. In a feasibility study approved by Lehighton's board on July 21, both options were estimated at $32.5 million.

"Some individuals feel a new elementary center is not the way the district should go, but the majority of the board, and therefore the board, has indicated this is the direction it wants to head in," Cleaver said.

Attendees at Wednesday's kickoff included Brian Feick, district business manager; Joe Hauser, district supervisor of building and grounds; Mark Barnhardt, lead project architect from EI Associates; Steve Holland, board member; Gloria Bowman, board president; Sue Howland, principal at Franklin and East Penn elementary schools; Sue Cordes, Franklin Elementary School reading specialist; Ann Shonenberger, district paraprofessional; Nicole Heilman, parent; Autumn Abelovsky, parent; Aaron Sebelin, principal at Shull-David and Mahoning elementary schools; Tom Lawler, band director; Kristin Simmons, secretary; Stacey Duerst, Franklin Elementary PTO president; Diane Brownmiller, elementary school media specialist; Amanda Rex, teacher; Sylvia Quigley, Shull-David Elementary School cook; and Larry Koons, elementary school health and physical education teacher.

Cleaver began by asking everyone to name one thing they would like to see in a new elementary center.

Answers included adequate classroom space, a warm and inviting environment for students, stability for learning support students, a better distribution of students, air conditioning and a safe school.

"I'd like to see a school that provides equal opportunities for all students," Howland said.

"As spread out as the students and staff are now, I just don't think we have that equality."

Cleaver agreed, noting that some kindergarten classes have nine students in them, while others at a different building have 25 students.

"You can't sit here and tell me that we're being fair to our students with those kind of numbers," he said.

No specific designs were decided upon Wednesday, but Barnhardt discussed various schools EI Associates had worked with in the past and the opportunities that may be out there for Lehighton.

"There are going to be lots of discussions and decisions that need to be made from how classrooms are setup to whether the cafeteria tables long rectangles or round," he said.

Cleaver said a preferred setup would be splitting the K-2 primary classes and 3-5 elementary classes in different parts of the building.

"We want the committee members to talk to members of the community and bring their thoughts back to the drawing table as well," Cleaver said. "This is a great opportunity to create a new culture and start something new."

The committee will meet regularly. Cleaver said a schedule would be established that accommodates the members.