Tuesday evening, approximately 30 interested community members attended the first of four informational meetings to learn about and discuss the new proposed building plan for Lehighton Area School District.
Welcoming the crowd to East Penn Elementary School, Superintendent James Kraky gave a brief history of the building project process. In November 2008, a district-wide feasibility study was conducted for all facilities to look for problems and best solutions. It was determined that the worst problems were at the middle school.
Addressing these concerns, Supervisor of Plant Operations Joseph Hauser said, "The building is at the end of its life cycle." It is experiencing significant mechanical failures on an ongoing basis. Built in the early 1960s, the current middle school building originally served as the high school for the district.
Hauser pointed out that many components of the building are original, making it difficult to find replacement parts. "The boiler is past its life expectancy," he said. It currently costs more than twice as much to heat the middle school as it does to heat the high school.
In addition, Hauser discussed persistent issues that include heating difficulties in the auditorium; asbestos throughout the building; pipes corroding; valve failures; leaking skylights in the gymnasium roof; and lack of insulation. "Also, the heating units in the classrooms are outdated," he added.
The high school is also experiencing mechanical failures on an increasing basis. Hauser reminded the crowd that the "new" high school is 20 years old.
In response to these concerns, LASD convened a special committee. Comprised of approximately 30 community representatives from various groups and municipalities throughout the district, the Lehighton Area School District Building Task Force Committee was charged with evaluating the building issues, reviewing all options, and giving the school board direction on behalf of the community.
EI Associates has been sharing building proposals with the committee for almost a year now. "Their input and recommendations have helped to lead us to the current proposal," said Kraky.
The committee recently reviewed and endorsed the proposed building plan that includes an addition to the existing high school building. It would allow the high school and middle school students to share some core space – while retaining their respective separate educational space.
"We certainly will not be co-mingling students," said Kraky. "For example, fifth and twelfth grade students will not have gym together."
Under this plan, educational time would not be disrupted during these projects. High school and middle school students would continue to attend class in their original setting while the new construction is built. Upon completion, the high school students would move into the new section – which would then become the high school. While the old section is renovated, the middle school students would continue to attend the current middle school and would move to the new complex only after all the work has finished. Students would not have to be temporarily based in another building.
Following the project, the current middle school would most likely be torn down and the land turned into athletic fields.
One of the proposed benefits of this plan is that education hours for middle school students may increase. Currently, the middle school students are dismissed 10 minutes earlier than the high school students. The buses then proceed to the high school for pick-up. Under this new building proposal, the students would all be dismissed at the same time – increasing their education hours by 1800 minutes or 30 additional hours for the 180-day school year. This matter would be addressed in upcoming contract negotiations.
Middle school students would be able to access advanced programs offered by the high school – i.e., gifted programs, accelerated academics, etc. Currently, these students are driven between the middle and high schools. Also, the set-up for the existing high school building is more conducive to the middle school "best practices" team concept than the long corridors of the current middle school.
According to Kraky, "One of the advantages of this building proposal is the sharing of certain facilities." The high school and middle school would share an auditorium, library space, media center, and band rooms – as well as locker rooms, nurse's office, and art facilities. While the students would eat in two separate cafeterias, there would be one kitchen facility to prepare the food.
EI Associates estimates that if the district decides to take no action, the costs for maintenance projects for the middle school over the next five years will be $12,700,000 – of which there will be no state reimbursement. This represents approximately 1.35 additional mills to current taxes.
If the district decides to renovate and expand the high school, the state would reimburse the district approximately $16,000,000 of the estimated $35,000,000 project over the life of the bond. This represents approximately 2.72 additional mills to current taxes. These figures are assuming that one mill equals $352,000. Broken down, the annual cost per household for the average assessed home value of $44,250 would be $120 – a daily cost of 33 cents.
Business Manager Michael Malay, Jr., explained to the crowd, "State reimbursement would be much higher under this plan since we would be servicing the needs of not only the middle school students, but also the high school students." He continued, "This plan doubles the reimbursement from the state from $8,000,000 (if a separate middle school were built) to $16,000,000."
Thanking the committee for their time and dedication, Kraky opened up the meeting to a question and answer period. Much of the discussion focused on finances.
School Board member William Hill asked if the 2.72 mill tax increase is a "guestimate." Malay answered, "Yes … by professionals who do this for a living." He assured the crowd that these figures are worst-case scenario.
Malay also reminded the crowd that the state reimbursement only comes around once every 20 years. "Reimbursement is not one big check. It's spread out over 20 years to help make the mortgage payments," he said.
One taxpayer asked if upcoming union contracts should be negotiated first, before committing to a building project. Kraky explained that he does not know how long it will take to negotiate the new contracts and that borrowing is now at its best rate in years. He said the school district would try to lock in a low rate now, although the money may not actually be borrowed until some time next year.
In addition, construction costs are currently low. "The plan is to use as much 'local workforce' as possible," added Kraky.
School Board President Dave Krause reminded the crowd that this has been a long and thorough process. "We hired EI Associates in 2006," he said.
When asked about the "swamp land" issue at the current high school, Kraky assured the crowd that the problem will be addressed during the PlanCon process. When a school district undertakes a major construction project and seeks reimbursement from the state, a process known as PlanCon is initiated.
PlanCon, an acronym for Planning and Construction Workbook, is a set of forms and procedures used to apply for state reimbursement. The PlanCon forms are designed to: (1) document a local school district's planning process; (2) provide justification for a project to the public; (3) ascertain compliance with state laws and regulations; and (4) establish the level of state participation in the cost of the project.
Kraky estimates that with PlanCon, even if the building project process would begin now, it would not be completed until at least February 2014.
There are three more informational community meetings that will be held throughout the district to discuss the new proposed building plan. They are scheduled for this evening at Franklin Elementary School; Monday, Nov. 7 at Mahoning Elementary School; and Thursday, Nov. 17 at Lehighton Area High School. This final meeting will also be a special meeting of Lehighton Area School Board. A vote on this proposed building project may take place at that time.
These meetings will begin at 7 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend one or more of the informational meetings to learn more about the building proposal. A question and answer period will follow the extensive presentation.
Concluding the meeting last evening, Kraky reminded the crowd, "We want to do the right thing for our students and for our community."