Renovate middle school, or build a new facility?
"There's never a good time for a building project, but there is a right time," Lehighton School District Superintendent James Kraky told a small crowd Wednesday at the middle school during a special meeting of the school board.
The board met, along with architectural consultants from EI Associates, to show the community what was for them the culmination of years of research and for the district as a whole, the beginning of months of serious discussions about the future of the middle school's current campus.
Kraky was responding to concerns about spending millions of dollars in an economic climate that has left many in the district unemployed and everyone worried about tax increases.
The presentation by architects Mark Barnhardt and Leah Shiley made it clear that improvements to the building are essential.
Many of the building's systems and structures, including stair railings, the fire alarm and phone dialer system aren't up to code.
The security panel, air compressor and room unit vents are obsolete, the exterior Dryvit panels and single pane glass windows provide poor insulation, and many of the interior piping and floor tiles are asbestos insulated.
Further, the Pennsylvania Department of Education calculates rising enrollment over the next decade, in line with projections of rising new housing starts over the same time period. The Department of Education expects 887 enrolled middle schoolers in the 2018-19 school year. The current building's capacity is 729.
Over the next few months, the school board will decide whether these challenges warrant a costly renovation or the construction of an entirely new middle school campus.
To expand the building and renovate its structures and systems up to proper code, while meeting today's technology demands, would cost $21,500,000.
The project would be eligible for up to $8.2 million in state aid, and after all reimbursements, the cost to taxpayers would come out to 1.85 mills, or $80 per household at a $44,250 average home value assessment.
This compares to the projected $25,875,000 cost of constructing a new middle school. With all reimbursements factored in, the taxpayer cost would come to 2.46 mills, or $110 per household.
These figures don't account for the expected $116,180 energy cost difference between the existing middle school and the proposed building. While energy costs are now $1.32 per square foot, the new building would cost $0.35 per square foot.
The average green building reduces energy use by 30-50 percent, carbon emissions by 35 percent, water use by 40 percent and solid waste by 70 percent.
One aspect of the renovation and expansion option that was not overlooked was the necessity of construction work during school hours, which could have a potentially negative impact on students' performance.
Whether the school district agrees to renovations of the existing building, or the design and construction of an entirely new campus across from the administration building, any structure housing the middle school will see facility expansion and cost-cutting energy efficiency improvements.
While residents were concerned about the cost of either project and the impact to tax millage, questions were also raised about the fate of the existing building should construction begin on a new middle school, and some in attendance worried that the board was rushing into this project with little transparency.
To this end, school board President Dave Krause finished the meeting by assuring parents, district residents and taxpayers that all options for the current middle school building would be explored if a new one goes up, and that all are welcome to participate in the ongoing decision and planning phase.
"We want involvement from the community and don't want to waste money," Krause said. "We want to move ahead smartly."