'Avon Grove still provides the best educational outcomes, per dollar, in Chester County'
By Steven Hoffman
The four incumbent Avon Grove School Board members who are up for re-election on Tuesday, Nov. 7―Ed Farina, Brian Gaerity, Patrick Walker, and Bill Wood―point to investments in technology and STEM education, increased support for music, arts, and athletic programs, and the expansion to full-day kindergarten as just a few ways that students are seeing real benefits from a reasoned reinvestment in education that has been made while they’ve been on the board. They point to a 16-month effort to develop a comprehensive plan to address the district’s long-term facilities needs. They point to the graduating seniors in the Class of 2017 who earned, collectively, $4.5 million in scholarships, and know that the school district’s administrators and teachers had an important part to play in preparing the students for the future. They point to all these examples of progress as reasons why they should be re-elected so that the progress can continue.
In Region I, voters will decide two seats on the board as Gaerity and Walker are being challenged by John Auerbach and Lynn Weber. In Region II, Farina is being opposed by Rick Dumont, while in Region III voters will decide between Wood and Jeffrey Casey.
The single biggest issue as Election Day approaches is how the school district is going to address its facilities needs, but Farina, Gaerity, Walker, and Wood don’t view the upcoming election as simply a referendum on a particular facilities project.
“It's certainly an issue, but the election is about more than that,” said Gaerity.
Wood added that ensuring that the school buildings are in good condition is one important consideration, but it's just one in a long list of ways that the district needs to address the needs of students. They don’t want to see the district go backwards when it comes to academic achievement and opportunities for students. They want Avon Grove to continue to provide the best education possible for students while also making sure that property taxes are kept as low as possible for residents―especially senior citizens and those on fixed incomes.
“It's about making sure that we're making smart investments,” said Gaerity. “We are spending our money very wisely. Avon Grove still provides the best educational outcomes, per dollar, in Chester County.”
While the four incumbents aren’t currently united in support of one particular facilities plan, they do share concerns that the team of candidates challenging them will reduce spending on educational programs, including cuts to arts, music, and athletics, to the detriment of students. They worry that the progress that has been made because of the hard work of administrators and teachers, the academic achievement that was made possible through a rigorous curriculum, will be lost because the decisions being made will no longer support the learning environment that has been built up since the district brought in Dr. Christopher Marchese as the superintendent in 2013.
And while the team of incumbents has not voted for or supported a particular plan, they have gone on the record as saying that the school district must take action to improve the facilities―both in the short-term and the long-term. Two years ago, the district formed a Facilities Input Group comprised of a broad cross-section of stakeholders to analyze the facilities needs and to look at the various options.
Last month, the district's Facilities Input Group concluded more than 16 months of work by delivering a recommendation on how to address the district's facilities needs to the school board. The recommendation, which was identified as Option 1C during the meeting, calls for the construction of a $64.4 million middle school on the Sunnyside Road site that the district already owns. 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 would support 21st century learning for all the district's students. In total, the facilities projects would cost an estimated $140 million.
The school board is expected to spend the last part of 2017 and the first part of 2018 discussing the merits of the plan recommended by the Facilities Input Group. The board could decide to pursue Option 1C as it is, which seems unlikely, or change it in one of a thousand ways before architects actually do the design work on the renovation or new construction projects.
Walker, Wood, Gaerity and Farina believe that a small but vocal group of people have been spreading misinformation about the facilities plan―particularly the costs for the projects―in an effort to scare residents into voting for the challengers.
“We haven’t decided to spend a lot of money on any project,” Walker said, explaining that the biggest misconception in the campaign is that the school board has already decided on a particular building project.
“No decisions have been made yet,” Walker said.
Wood added that there are details in the option recommended by the Facilities Input Group that he has concerns about.
What is clear to the incumbents is that the school board has a responsibility to address the long-term facilities needs of the district―whatever that plan turns out to be.
The high school was originally built in 1957, while the Middle School was constructed four years later. Both buildings are overcrowded and don't have the spaces that are necessary for a 21st century curriculum.
“We need more space,” Walker said.
“We also need a different kind of space,” Gaerity added, explaining that the instructional spaces that students need, especially for technology and engineering courses, are very different from what students used to need.
“Students need to work collaboratively now,” Wood said. “You can’t fit the same number of students in the classroom.”
The high school is utilized at 142 percent capacity. There are more than 1,800 students in the building, and the enrollment capacity should be around 1,250. That means that the hallways are uncomfortably crowded when classes change. That means that the core spaces like the cafeteria, the gym, and the library are strained to the breaking point. The auditorium at the high school is the only theater in the district, and it isn’t large enough to meet the needs of students and the community. The high school has a strong drama and music program. Wood explained that the spring musical performances last year involved 185 students from across the district. But only so much can be done with the auditorium’s current limitations.
Additionally, the high school needs significant upgrades. The roof needs to be replaced. Farina, who serves on the district's Facilities Committee, explained that the gym floor in the high school has not been refinished in the last 30 years. Farina also recalled a time when he was new to the board and the Chester County Intermediate Unit was asked to come in to do an assessment of the facilities. It was discovered that at some point in the past, one of the two boilers at the high school had stopped working and had never been repaired. Farina explained that without hot water, a school can’t be open for students, so if anything happened to that one, functioning boiler, the school wouldn’t even be able to serve students. Regardless of who is serving on the school board, the high school building will require a significant investment to meet the needs of students.
The middle school is about 50 students over functional capacity and is utilized at 106 percent capacity. The high school requires 12 additional portable classrooms to accommodate students, while the middle school has eight portable classrooms.
“Portable classrooms are a great option, but they are only a temporary option,” Walker explained. For Avon Grove, there is nothing temporary about the portable classrooms.
The plan recommended by the Facilities Input Group would also increase the number of athletic fields for the secondary schools―an important benefit because the fields are currently being overused as multiple sports teams use them.
The incumbents say that they wouldn't support anything extravagant when it comes to building or renovating a school. They noted that the plan ultimately recommended by the Facilities Input Group is very similar to a recommendation by another committee that studied the district's facilities more than a decade ago―which suggests, at the very least, that the upgrades that are being deemed necessary today have been needed for a very long time. In fact, Avon Grove officials were on the verge of approving a major construction project back then, but enrollment stabilized and the project was delayed when the economy slumped and revenues for the school district declined.
Another delay in addressing the district's long-term facilities needs could have a big impact on students and the community.
“What it comes down to,” Farina said, “is are we going to address the facilities needs or not?”
Farina said that district officials have looked at other school districts’ renovation projects to get a better understanding of all the options.
One thing that concerns Farina is the suggestion that the district could get by with some simple upgrades that would be comparatively inexpensive.
“It will take considerable upgrades,” Farina said. “It's not just fixing a roof.”
The incumbents also pointed out that while their opponents have been critical of the plan recommended by the Facilities Input Group, they have not provided details of any alternative that would address the district's needs.
“As far as I can see,” Gaerity said, “our opponents do not have a different solution. What are they going to do? We don't know. I have heard no specific ideas from them.”
They pointed out that John Auerbach, one of the candidates, was on the Facilities Input Group for 18 months but offered no other solutions even though he had a voice throughout the whole process. In the end, they said, Auerbach ended up not even voting for a plan―abstaining when the Facilities Input Group took its vote to make a final recommendation to the board.
The candidates are well aware of the impact that any construction project would have on district residents. They want to minimize the tax impact to residents. They point with pride to the record that they have as board members for making fiscally responsible decisions. They've negotiated teachers' contracts that have been fair to both teachers and taxpayers. The school district's retirement costs have increased dramatically over the last decade, but those costs are mandated by the state. But those costs have been absorbed without skyrocketing tax increases. Over a ten-year period, Avon Grove's taxes increased by 21.91 percent, which is the fourth-lowest percentage millage increase out of the school districts in Chester County during that time.
“Where we’ve been able to control costs, we’ve controlled costs,” Gaerity said. “We don’t take tax increases lightly.”
Another area where the incumbents draw a distinction between themselves and their opponents is there volunteerism with the schools, which started before they were even school board members.
Wood said that they have all put in the time and effort to understand the educational needs of students.
Walker observed that the other team of candidates in the race don't show up regularly at curriculum or policy or budget meetings where a lot of important work gets done.
“They are not there,” he said.
“We were volunteers before we joined the board, we will be volunteers after we leave the board,” Gaerity said. “We’re very involved with the Avon Grove School District.”
The incumbents also say that they have a good record of supporting the Avon Grove Charter School. In the past, the relationship between the school district and the charter school has had its rough spots, but in recent years the relationship has been much more stable.
“We already support the Charter School,” Walker said.
Wood, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in September of 2016, said that some of his goals moving forward are to work to increase community involvement, communications, and transparency. He’s been working for more engagement with the large Latino community in the district.
Walker said that more community engagement is a goal of his as well.
“We’re trying to do outreach to all the communities in the district,” he said.
Farina, a board member for four years, said that he is proud that the district is now following a curriculum review cycle that ensures that the curriculum and the teaching methods that are used are constantly updated. They also instituted an instrument renewal program, mostly at the high school, that ensures that the instruments used by students are being replaced as needed.
Walker, who like Farina, joined the board four years ago, said that it’s the teachers that have the biggest impact on the education of the students. He is proud of the fact that the district has been able to reach contracts with the teachers’ union that is affordable for taxpayers, but also provides teachers with fair salaries that will keep them in the district.
“In the past,” he explained, “we were training teachers and then they were leaving to go to other school districts. Now, we are keeping them.” They currently have a teachers’ contact in place that allows the district to make other investments that benefit students without overburdening taxpayers or jeopardizing programs.
“I think we’ve done a lot of good things,” said Gaerity, who is completing his first full term on the board. “I’m very happy about full-day kindergarten. I’m glad that we were finally able to make that happen. I’m proud that we’ve been able to invest in the students in the way that we have.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.
SLUG: Avon Grove election story