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Chester County Press

New middle school is at the center of $140 million in facilities upgrades recommended in Avon Grove

09/19/2017 02:36PM ● By Steven Hoffman

The construction of a new middle school is at the center of a proposed plan to address the Avon Grove School District's long-term facilities needs.

The district's Facilities Input Group made the recommendation to build a new middle school to the Avon Grove School Board at a meeting on Sept. 14. The recommendation, which is non-binding, came after the Facilities Input Group spent more than 16 months reviewing and analyzing data from the most recent facilities study, enrollment projections, and the district's current preventative maintenance plan for its buildings.

The plan that the Facilities Input Group favored, identified as Option 1C during the meeting, has an estimated cost of $140.5 million. The projected cost of constructing a new middle school for grades six through eight on the Sunnyside Road site is $64.4 million. Another $75.9 million would be spent on an extensive renovation of the high school and current middle school building that would include the addition of new core spaces like a gymnasium, cafeteria, and library that would link the buildings and create a new Avon Grove High School campus that could support 21st century learning for all the district's students. Additionally, under the plan, the grades would be reconfigured at the district's other schools so that Penn London Elementary would serve kindergarten and first grade students, while the Avon Grove Intermediate School would be for grades two through five.

“We have an important night here in the Avon Grove School District,” said superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese at the start of the three-hour meeting in the auditorium of the high school. “This is about planning for the future of the Avon Grove School District.”

Marchese explained that there are significant inadequacies with each of the district's existing buildings when it comes to space and flexibility—all four schools are utilized at more than 100 percent of the functional capacity, and taken as a group the buildings are operating at 114 percent of functional capacity.

How cramped are Avon Grove's schools? Marchese offered one illustration, explaining that the district currently has 127 square feet of space per student, which is significantly less than the average of 184 square feet per student in the four-county area. Avon Grove ranks last in the area in square feet of space per student.

Marchese said that the greatest needs were obviously at the secondary level—the high school first, followed by the middle school, with the buildings at the elementary level having fewer needs.

The lack of space impacts the educational program, especially at the high school where study halls often take place in the auditorium and the school can only accommodate about 36 percent of the demand for STEM and technology education classes. Marchese said that the school's science teachers have made requests for spaces that allow for laboratory-based courses. He would also like the high school to have spaces that allow for more collaboration, including for seminars that would bring students together from different classes to work on projects.

The high school's core spaces are woefully overcrowded, as anyone who has been in the school can attest. The lack of space hinders co-curricular and athletic programs. Fine Arts and the theater programs are also limited by the current space.

Marchese went on to explain that the high school, in particular, has mechanical deficiencies, including HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems and roofing that must be improved in order for the school to continue to serve students.

Both the Avon Grove High School, built in 1957, and the Fred S. Engle Middle School, built in 1961, have been over capacity for years, and portable classrooms are utilized to accommodate the number of students that the district has at the secondary level. There are currently 12 portable classrooms at the high school and 8 more at the middle school.

The Penn London Elementary School, built 25 years ago, has five portable classrooms this school year, and the expansion to a full-day kindergarten program will place more demands on the building. The Avon Grove Intermediate School, built in 2002, is the district’s most modern building, but even that school has projected enrollments that will exceed its functional capacity.

“We're over capacity in all of our schools,” Marchese explained. “We're at a crossroads, and we need to make decisions on how we're going to improve our facilities. To do nothing is not a responsible action for our kids.”

Marchese turned the microphone over to Uwe Beuscher, one of the community members who served on the Facilities Input Group. This task force was comprised of a broad cross-section of the Avon Grove community―district administrators, parents from every school in the district, residents from each municipality, current and former school board members, and other community stakeholders. The group started work in May of 2016. A significant part of the process was evaluating the current state of the district's four school buildings, and how those buildings meet the educational needs of students. The Facilities Input Group toured each school building in the district in the fall of 2016, and reviewed each building’s educational model, enrollment, capacity, and facilities study evaluation. In the spring of 2017, the group also visited recently built or recently renovated high schools in nearby districts to explore ways in which those districts addressed their students’ needs with building projects. The schools that they toured included Henderson High School, Rustin High School, Great Valley High School, and Upper Dublin High School.

The Facilities Input Group developed seven different options that they could explore in-depth. The advantages, disadvantages, and projected costs of each option were studied. These options involved various combinations of new construction and renovation work, with most of the upgrades focused on the high school and middle school because those buildings have the greatest need for improvements.

Beuscher talked about how the Facilities Input Group systematically went about analyzing each of the options. One possibility under consideration would have included the renovation of the existing high school and middle school. But Beuscher explained that the site has limitations with regard to how much each building can be expanded, and any expansion would likely come at the expense of athletic fields and parking. The site already has a shortage of athletic fields and parking, so that was a disadvantage. Also, the costs of doing extensive renovations on those two buildings were comparable to the costs of options that included the construction of a new school because the costs of any building project are ultimately determined, in large part, by the amount of physical space that is being added.

Beuscher added that the Facilities Input Group reached the conclusion that any option that included the redistricting of schools should also be eliminated because redistricting would not be beneficial to students and their families.

As the options were narrowed, the construction of a new middle school on the Sunnyside Road site was preferred by a large majority of Facilities Input Group members. A new middle school closely matched the amount of space, in square feet, that district officials felt was necessary to gain as the result of a construction project. Facilities Input Group members also felt that the Sunnyside Road site was more suitable for a middle school, not a high school, and there was also a strong preference to have a middle school serve three grades, not two.

Marchese said that a wealth of educational research supports the idea that it is a best practice for a district to have a middle school for grades six through eight. School board president Bonnie Wolff said that her family also felt that it was a better middle school experience for their children when there were three grades in Avon Grove's middle school, not two.

Carolyn Hammerschmidt led the next part of the presentation. Like Beuscher, she served on the Facilities Input Group.

She talked about how the plan that the Facilities Input Group is recommending will accommodate projected enrollment without the use of modular classrooms—which is a goal for the district.

She added that the construction of a new middle school and renovation of the high school would also increase the district's square-feet-per-student from 127 to 172, which would place Avon Grove near the middle of the pack in the region in that measurement.

Hammerschmidt said that the recommended plan adds athletic spaces at the secondary school level, and also increases the number of parking spaces on the State Road campus from about 500 to 750 spaces.

Daniel Carsley, the district's business administrator and chief financial officer, talked about the timeline for construction and estimated costs of the recommended project.

According to the timeline, work on the construction of the new middle school and on the core spaces of the renovated high school would begin in the spring of 2019 and continue through the summer of 2021.

In the fall of 2021, the grades would be reconfigured at Penn London Elementary and Avon Grove Intermediate School. Students would also begin attending classes in the newly completed middle school in the fall of 2021.

A renovation of the old section of the current middle school would take place between the summer of 2021 and winter break of 2022. Then, in January of 2023, students would be shifted to the new section of the renovated high school, and renovation work would begin on another portion of the high school. The demolition of the old core facilities and the construction of the new bus loop and parking area at the high school would take place by December of 2024.

Carsley explained that, in anticipation of some sort of construction project in the near future, the district began the Plancon process with the state two years ago so that Avon Grove would be in line for reimbursement for a portion of the project. Once the school board decides on a project, the district can continue on with the Plancon process. The district estimates that there is a potential to be reimbursed for about $13.9 million of a $140.5 million project. The district would then borrow the remaining money, likely utilizing 20-year bonds.

Carsley said that the plan would require a tax increase—just for the costs associated with this building project—of about 2.95 mills total over a five-year period. That equates to about an additional $99 a year tax increase on a property at the median assessed value of $169,000.

Of course, all these figures are estimates since the costs themselves are projections at this point. The school board has not voted to move forward with the plan, and there will be numerous decisions to be made that will impact the scope of the project.

Once the presentation was complete, the school board members had the opportunity to ask questions of the Facilities Input Group members, ranging from the costs of new construction compared to renovation work to whether additional space could be added to the high school by building up, not out.

Board member Brian Gaertity said that the desired outcome of whatever project the board ultimately decides on is to ensure that students in the district will have the educational opportunities that they need not just for the next few years, but well into the future. “We're going to be asking the community to be making an invest in itself,” he said.

School board member Charles Beatty talked about the need for the school board to explore all options so that they arrive at the right decision for the entire school district, including taxpayers.

“I was hoping that the board would have more than one option to consider, and I hope that we still do,” Beatty said.

Next, residents had an opportunity to share their immediate thoughts about the Facilities Input Group's recommendation.

Residents talked about the importance of public education to children, and the fact that many people choose to live in Avon Grove because of the quality of the schools. Some residents talked about how the quality of schools benefits residents in numerous ways, including strong property values. Numerous residents spoke favorably of the recommendation that was presented during the meeting, while others expressed concerns about the project's costs.

Leslie Erb-Wallace said that her children received a good education when they were still in Avon Grove schools, and now it's her turn to pay for other families who currently have children in the schools.

“I'm willing to do this because it's the right thing to do,” she said.

Resident John Auerbach, a participant on the Facilities Input Group, did not reach the same conclusion as a majority of the members, saying that he does not think that the plan, as recommended, is best for Avon Grove.

“I believe there are alternatives to what is being presented today,” Auerbach said.

When the public comment was complete, the board took the procedural action of voting to accept the non-binding recommendation of the Facilities Input Group.

Now that the Facilities Input Group has offered its recommendation to the school board, the next step for the district is to schedule a series of community meetings, or listening posts, to get input from all the stakeholders in the district. Information from the series of listening posts will then be compiled by Foster, Jacobs, and Johnson, Inc., the firm that was retained to facilitate the work of the Facilities Input Group, and a report will be presented to the board, perhaps in January of 2018. After the school board has received input from the community, it will then begin discussions about how to address the district's long-term facilities needs. The school board could vote on a plan as early as April of 2018, but only that action would lead to the implementation of a project. At this point, no decisions have been made, district officials emphasized.

“Even though the findings are being presented, it's not over tonight,” said Marchese. “The work is really just beginning.”

Comprehensive information about the Facilities Input Group's work is available on the school district's website. Residents can also sign up to participate in one of the listening posts on the website.

Wolff encouraged everyone who is interested to participate in the listening post.

Toward the conclusion of the presentation, Marchese reiterated the importance this project could potentially have on the future of the school district.

“We're doing so much with what we have,” Marchese said, “but we can do so much more. This is a very important initiative for Avon Grove.”

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