New Avon Grove school on Sunnyside Road site?
● By Steven Hoffman
Following the most recent facilities planning meeting on March 27, it appears as if the Avon Grove School Board has reached a consensus that building a new school on the Sunnyside Road site should be the centerpiece of a plan to address the district's long-term facilities needs. Deciding whether to build a new middle school or a new high school on the district-owned property in Penn Township could be the next major decision for the school board, which is expected to vote on a facilities plan at a meeting on April 26.
It appears likely―but still far from certain at this point―that the board's final plan will be a somewhat scaled back version of the option that was favored by the Facilities Input Group. That group, comprised of various stakeholders in the district, completed more than 16 months of work reviewing and analyzing data from the most recent facilities study, enrollment projections, and other information, in September of 2017.
The final recommendation by the Facilities Input Group was that the district should construct a new middle school for grades six through eight on the Sunnyside Road Site. There would also be 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 to create a new Avon Grove High School campus that could support 21st century learning for all the district's students.
A series of nearly two dozen listening posts followed the Facilities Input Group's announcement of a recommendation, during which district officials listened to input from parents, taxpayers, teachers, students, and other stakeholders. Facilities planning meetings for the district's Committee-of-the-Whole have been taking place over the last three months.
The most recent meetings seemed to produce very little progress, but there seemed to be a small breakthrough at the most recent meeting.
The March 27 meeting began with dozens of people wearing “#Build for Avon Grove” stickers filing into the Penn London Elementary School―sending a clear message to the nine members of the Avon Grove School Board as they continued the process of evaluating options to address the district's facilities needs.
School board president Tracy Lisi began the meeting by stating that the goal for that session was to narrow the options to two as the school board moves closer to making a final decision.
Lisi noted that up to this point, the school board members had come to an agreement on removing modular classrooms throughout the district. The school board had also agreed that they want to target 85 percent utilization rates for secondary schools and 90 percent utilization at the elementary schools. What they had not been able to do up to this point was come together around one specific option, or even reach a consensus on parameters of spending on the plan.
Early on, several school board members reiterated their support for an Option 4A, which would include the renovation of the middle school for grades 7 and 8 and a renovation and addition to the high school.
The school district's administration is strongly opposed to this option, and during the last several months, superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese and several of the school board members have outlined reasons why the option is not a good one for Avon Grove. The high school is in desperate need of system upgrades that will cost millions of dollars. If the high school and middle school were both renovated, there would also need to be significant additional space added―at the cost of tens of millions of dollars―just to increase the overcrowded core spaces and eliminate the use of about 18 portable classrooms.
Renovating the two schools would put more pressure on the State Road campus that has already reached its maximum usage. Athletic fields and parking―both already in short supply on the site―would likely be reduced even further with an expansion of both schools. Renovation to the schools would also need to take place while students were in the buildings, over the course of about five years.
While Option 4A would be less expensive in the short-term, it wouldn't provide the district with the flexible learning spaces that administrators have said they need for students as they prepare for college and their careers. It would also put the district in a position where no future expansion could be possible. With a larger-than-expected increase in enrollment, the schools could soon be overcrowded and the district would be facing an even more expensive building project.
During the first hour or so of the March 27 meeting, school board members Rick Dumont, Lynn Weber, John Auerbach, and Charles Beatty III all expressed varying levels of support for Option 4A, while the other board members made it clear that this plan was not a compromise option that they could all support.
“I am absolutely not able to support 4A for a lot of reasons,” school board member Bill Wood said. He mentioned the loss of athletic fields, the possibility of the loss of the Sunnyside Road site entirely, five straight years of renovation work at the State Road campus, and not enough collaborative learning spaces for students. Wood also said that the board should also factor in the administration’s opinion that the grades six to eight configuration for the middle school is the best one for students developmentally.
School board member Jeffrey Billig talked about how it was important for the board to listen to the professionals who said that the State Road campus was already maxed out, and making significant renovations and additions to the schools there would be difficult―and expensive. Billig also cautioned the board about attempting to come up with its own design ideas for school buildings when the district has retained professionals to do that job.
As the conversation continued, it was pointed out that there are five board members who are not supportive of Option 4A. Although board member Herman Engel was not able to be at this meeting, he had already publicly stated that he did not think the option was the best one for the district.
Beatty moved the conversation forward when he noted that the district could borrow, according to its financial advisors, about $54 million for a project without having to raise the millage rate to pay for the debt service. Add in about 26 million in the fund balance, and the district has about $80 million to spend without increasing millage rates to specifically pay for debt-service on the project.
“What can we do with that $80 million?” Beatty asked rhetorically. He went on to outline some details of a new option that included building a smaller middle school on the Sunnyside Road property and doing the necessary infrastructure improvements on both the buildings at the State Road campus that would include reworking some of the spaces to accommodate STEM education and collaborative spaces.
The conversation continued and eventually circled back to Option 4A―briefly.
At that point, Marchese interjected. He said that he didn’t understand why the option kept coming up after the shortcomings and challenges had been explained.
“If you, as a board, take $77 million and spend it on Option 4A, it’s a waste of taxpayer money,” Marchese said. “It will be a mistake for the Avon Grove School District.”
The superintendent said that if there was more space at the State Road campus, and future expansion was possible, then it would be a different story. “We don’t want to be in a position, 10 years from now, saying, ‘why did we do that?’” Marchese said.
He implored the board to move on from discussions about Option 4A.
Auerbach agreed, noting that five members were not going to support it, so it didn’t make sense to continue focusing on that option during the conversation.
After some more discussion, the board seemed to reach agreement that constructing a new school on the Sunnyside Road campus is the best option to address the overcrowding in the schools. That moved the school board closer to reaching a final decision.
There was considerable discussion about doing what’s best for both taxpayers and students in the district throughout the meeting.
Wood summed up the importance of having good schools when he said, 鄭 great school system is what keeps a community flourishing.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Middle school or high school?
By Steven Hoffman
Now that the Avon Grove School Board has apparently reached a consensus that the best way to meet the district’s facilities needs is by constructing a new school on the Sunnyside Road property, the next question is whether that school will be a middle school or a high school.
Constructing a new high school would take care of the district’s biggest and most urgent need because the existing high school is overcrowded, outdated when it comes to educational spaces, and in need of the most repair. But constructing a new middle school on the Sunnyside Road site would allow both the buildings and the entire State Road campus to serve as a high school that would accommodate 21st Century learning.
The existing sports stadium is certainly a factor―constructing a new high school on the Sunnyside Road campus would mean that students would need to be transported to the State Road site to utilize the sports stadium. Constructing a high school on the Sunnyside Road campus would also likely result in the current middle school building being vacated. At this point, there is no clear use for the building if a new high school is built on the Sunnyside Road property and the current high school is transformed into a middle school.
For those reasons, board vice president Bonnie Wolff said that it might make more sense to put a new middle school on Sunnyside Road and renovate the high school―which was the plan featured in Option 1C, the one recommended by the Facilities Input Group.
“While I would love to see a new high school, and our students deserve one, I feel like our money is best spent on a new middle school,” Wolff said.
School board president Tracy Lisi also said that she, too, favors Option 1C because it offers much more flexibility with the buildings.
School board member Bill Wood said that he was very undecided about whether constructing a new middle school would be better than building a new high school.
Several school board members expressed their concerns about the costs involved with Option 1C, so there could be the possibility of scaling back the plan a bit to reduce the costs.
Lisi said that it seemed like the board was coming to a consensus on building a new middle school on the Sunnyside Road property―if the price is right.
The final facilities planning session is set for Thursday, April 12 at the Avon Grove High School. The Avon Grove School Board is expected to make a decision on a plan at the Thursday, April 26 school board meeting.