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Board lays the groundwork for new school

Published January 18. 2010 05:00PM

Members of the Jim Thorpe Area School District Board of Education heard from architectural and planning advisers during their meeting last week, regarding plans for a new middle school the board hopes to build within the next few years.

Last month, the board voted to construct a new middle school in the district to serve grades 5-8, instead of another elementary school to serve grades K-8. At last week's meeting the board heard from two advisers hired to provide guidance on the project that is expected to cost residents in the district more than $30 million.

Robert Aumer, an associate with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, an architecture and planning firm from Pittsburgh, spoke to the board about project financing options. While there is currently some tax-free federal money being made available to schools in Pennsylvania through the state Department of Education (PDE), Aumer warned the board to consider that option carefully.

"Since I last saw you, I have talked to the Department of Education. I have some concerns about how this program is going to work and how school districts are going to be able to borrow the money," he said.

The money comes with strings in the form of federal guidelines that must be met, and there is some question as to when the funds will actually be made available. But the biggest concern, according to Aumer, is that the repayment period is only 16-18 years.

"The biggest stumbling block is even if it is at zero percent and you get the money, your district has the problem of paying it back," Aumer said. "It just doesn't fit your situation."

"It seems to me that if we took out an interest-free loan for $10 million, and then had a bond issue for the remaining $20 million, it might work," said board member Randall Smith.

"Well, it would," Aumer admitted. "Again, it's about $600,000 per year. It's a mill. So we could take a mill, if you get the $10 million tax free, you can do a level 16 year, $10 million deal. You don't have to do it. You can look at that versus conventional and do what ever one is the best. You will save interest. It will cost you more millage because we can't stretch it out, but you'll save interest."

Gary Bannon, vice president at EI Associates, Harrisburg, presented the board with two designs for the new building. The original design was for a 140,000-square-foot structure at a price of $180 per square foot, for a total construction cost of $25,200,000 and a total project cost of $31.5 million. Bannon said this building would house between 600-750 students.

The design calls for 16 areas that would accommodate six teams of 125 to 150 students each. But Bannon said that the school could add space for an additional team for not much more money.

Adding a seventh team to a school for three grades means that the last team would be made up of students from all three grades.

"For some districts, when they go to an odd number of teams, they might go to a 6-7-8 team," Bannon said. "You might take your most needy students and put them all in one team, or your brightest students and it would be a way to house more students."

Adding an additional team would push the capacity for the building to between 725 and 825 students but would require adding another 8,000 square feet to the building.

"I created four more classroom areas, another science lab for that additional team, and increased the size of the cafeteria and the gymnasium to accommodate the extra students," Bannon said. "That takes it to 148,000-square-foot, which at $180 per square foot is $26,600,000 in construction costs and $33.3 million in total project costs."

Bannon pointed out the district would be basically in "the same ballpark as per the millage impact." He said the board could choose to build a smaller building now and design it in a way that would make it easy to add more team areas later.

Board member Gerald Strubinger asked if the architects had taken into account growth projections for the district. Bannon replied that PDE projected enrollment for grades 6, 7 and 8 in Jim Thorpe rising to 674 students over the next 10 years.

Strubinger asked if the architects had taken into account any growth projections other than PDE's. Bannon said that they had.

"It was hard to predict before the economy went down," Bannon admitted. "It's a little more risky to try to predict whether previous growth will continue. There is a bit of caution from my perspective about running this building up another 8,000 square feet. Although, in the long term, you'll probably fill this building."

He said that taking into account allowing time for the project to work its way through the entire planning process, a new school would take three to four years to construct.

Some board members were not convinced that these two options were the only ones the school board should consider. Smith argued that the district should consider building a smaller middle school and save money that can be used later to build additional school buildings.

"I think we're going to be looking at two high schools in the future, a Jim Thorpe North and a Jim Thorpe South," Smith said. "If we don't seriously consider that, we're being short-sighted and board members who come after us are going to regret that we didn't look more closely at that."

Bannon warned that underbuilding could cause problems if the district grows.

The district will continue to discuss plans in committee and at future meetings.

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