Construction of a new Lehighton Area School District elementary center is projected to cost $32.5 million.

That's the same cost as renovating the four current elementary school buildings, the Building Committee announced to the school board and a standing-room-only crowd Monday night.

In addition, the school district is looking at $10.7 million to renovate the middle school and $9.3 million to renovate the high school. This brings the total projected building costs to $52.5 million.

The funding of the project is uncertain.

When a school district undertakes a major construction project and seeks reimbursement from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a comprehensive process known as PLANning and CONstruction is initiated.

According to Superintendent Jonathan J. Cleaver and architectural consultant Mark Barnhardt of EI Associates, Lehighton Area School Board authorized EI Associates to submit updated PlanCon paperwork to the Pennsylvania Department of Education on Sept. 13, 2012 ahead of a moratorium that went into effect Oct. 1 of that year.

This paperwork was submitted "status quo," so reimbursement from PlanCon for an elementary center is uncertain.

That could mean a loss of $10.15 million to the district over a 20-year period.

Currently, the district maintains four separate elementary schools for students in grades kindergarten through four. Students in grades five through eight attend the middle school and students in grades nine through 12 attend the high school.

Four schools now

East Penn, Franklin, and Mahoning Elementary Schools were all built in 1954. Shull-David Elementary School followed in 1959. These schools are now facing major renovations and updating in order to meet current infrastructure needs.

Under the elementary center proposal, students in grades kindergarten through five would attend the elementary center grouped respectively in grades kindergarten through two and three through five.

Students in grades six through eight would attend the middle school. The high school would continue to serve students in grades nine through 12.

Cleaver presented a cost comparison of maintaining four elementary schools versus the current high school which is approximately the same square footage as the proposed elementary center.

With a long list of projected costs including fuel, staff reduction through attrition, electricity, and bus transportation, he estimates an annual savings of $1 million.

Funding formula

If the district builds the proposed elementary center, Cleaver said the district would use $4 million of the $13 million fund balance.

With this funding formula, full reimbursement from PlanCon would result in an increase of 2.31 mills over four years. Half reimbursement for grades six through 12 would result in 3.57 mills.

If the school board decides to keep the buildings, renovations could be cut to $40 million. That's an estimated $5 million for each of the four elementary schools and $10 million each for the middle and high schools.

Cleaver estimates that with using $4 million from the fund balance, full reimbursement from PlanCon would result in an increase of 3.46 mills over four years.

If the school board decides to renovate the current buildings at the projected $52.5 million, Cleaver estimates that with using $4 million from the fund balance, full reimbursement from PlanCon would result in 5.09 mills over four years. Half reimbursement would result in 6.34 mills.

These figures are assuming that one mill equals $360,320.

Next step

According to school board President Gloria Bowman, the next step in the process will be for the school board to vote on whether or not to seek a waiver from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to update the PlanCon paperwork in order for LASD to receive full reimbursement.

That vote could come as early as the next regular meeting of Lehighton Area School Board, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24 at the district administration building.

For more information. visit the LASD website at www.Lehighton.org. Click on "Files and Documents" under "Quick Links." Click on "District." The various presentations can be found under "Building Feasibility Study."