Lehighton Area School Board President Gloria Bowman opened the school board meeting Monday evening with an announcement that came as a relief to many in the standing-room-only crowd.
"There will be no vote on any construction projects or building an elementary center this evening, only on a possible (reimbursement) waiver," she said.
The school board is seeking more information about how to proceed with a waiver from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to update the Planning and Construction Workbook paperwork.
The school district hopes to receive full reimbursement for the proposed building project.
The school board voted to authorize Superintendent Jonathan J. Cleaver, Bowman, School Board Director Rocky Ahner, and Architectural Consultant Mark Barnhardt of EI Associates to contact the state department of education to seek fact-finding for a waiver from the approved PlanCon submission to consider the district to build an elementary center.
The district wants to see if it can change the plan from renovation to building an elementary center.
The proposed elementary center is projected to cost $32.5 million.
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 throughout the school district to $52.5 million.
Paperwork was submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education in September 2012, ahead of a moratorium that went into effect Oct. 1 of that year.
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.
Under the elementary center proposal, students in grades kindergarten through five would attend the elementary center, grouped respectively in primary grades kindergarten through two and elementary grades 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.
These changes from the original paperwork, known as "status quo" could mean a loss of more than $10.1 million to the district over a 20-year period.
"By requesting a variance unprepared, we'll be standing on one shaky leg," cautioned Ahner. "I don't want it to be rushed. We don't even know if we're putting fifth grade back in the elementary school. The board has never discussed it."
"I don't think we have a shot at getting this waiver," added school board director Hal Resh. "We should not be going out to Harrisburg until we're ready."
According to Ahner, "PDE has never granted this type of exception."
"If the new elementary center works out financially and is in the best interest of the students, I would like to make the trip to Harrisburg on solid ground and come home with the exception granted," Ahner said. "Let's get our numbers straight first and not get in too far over our heads."
"We're only seeing what the process is," said school board director Larry Stern. "It will help determine our direction."
The school board also authorized Cleaver and Barnhardt to pursue applying for an Alternative and Clean Energy Program Grant to be used for the proposed elementary center. ACE provides financial assistance in the form of grant and loan funds that are used by eligible applicants for the utilization, development, and construction of alternative and clean energy projects in the commonwealth.
The school board has scheduled a building committee workshop meeting on Monday, March 10. The next regular meeting of the school board is scheduled for Monday, March 24. Both meetings will take place at 7 p.m. at LASD Administration Building.