New high school favored by Avon Grove School Board
● By Steven Hoffman
On April 26, the Avon Grove School Board will likely vote to authorize the construction of a new high school on the district-owned Sunnyside Road site.
The school board moved closer to that decision during a three-hour meeting on April 3, the latest in a series of facilities planning sessions undertaken by the district’s committee-of-the-whole.
At the next facilities planning meeting, which will take place on April 12, the school board will discuss the parameters of spending for the project.
At the April 3 meeting, constructing a new high school emerged as the favored option of the school board after an extensive discussion about whether the district should build a new middle school or a new high school to address the district’s future facilities needs.
While constructing a new high school would cost more than building a middle school, if the district opted to build a new middle school it would be necessary to also do an extensive renovation of the high school and middle school buildings to transform them into a functional high school on the State Road campus.
The minimum amount that it would cost to build a new middle school and do the necessary renovations and upgrades to the current high school and middle school buildings was estimated to be about $115 million―and that is only if the plans are scaled back significantly from the option that was favored by the Facilities Input Group last year. The construction of a new high school, by contrast, would require a lot less renovation work to transform the current high school into a middle school for grades six to eight. The price tag for constructing a new high school and doing the necessary renovation work on the existing high school to transform it into a middle school will be more than $100 million, but less than what it would cost to pursue an option that included a new middle school.
The plan to construct a new high school on the Sunnyside Road site comes with some drawbacks.
School board member Herman Engel said that one of his major concerns is that having the new high school on the Sunnyside Road site means that the sports stadium on State Road will be miles away―a new sports stadium would have to be built adjacent to the new high school or students will have to be transported across the district to utilize the sports stadium on the State Road campus.
Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said that while it’s not ideal to have the stadium across the district from the high school, Avon Grove could make it work. During the ensuing discussion, several board members talked about the possibility of continuing to use the stadium for a few years to see how it goes, and then building a new stadium on the Sunnyside Road campus if it becomes necessary.
There was considerable discussion during the meeting about finding ways to limit the costs of the project. For example, if the new high school were constructed so that there would be 150 square feet of space per student, the costs of that new high school, plus the costs of deferred maintenance on the existing high school, would come in at about $102 million. At 150 square feet of space per student, the new high school would rank below average among high schools in the region.
Marchese expressed concerns about reducing the square feet per student in the new school, which is the main way that the costs for the new building could be cut.
“You get that from reducing classroom space, by reducing collaborative space,” Marchese said. “You’ll be compromising the focus of education and what we’re trying to accomplish by trimming that down.”
Marchese encouraged the board to keep the size of the high school to between 160 square feet and 170 square feet per student―which would be slightly less than the average for high schools in the region.
If the school board votes to build a new high school, it will be picking a different option than the one favored by a Facilities Input Group that spent 16 months analyzing a variety of options on how to address the district’s facilities needs. The Facilities Input Group recommended constructing a new middle school and undertaking an extensive renovation of the high school.
Some of the school board members said that they would support building a new high school because it was less costly than the option that included building a middle school. Other school board members were swayed by the opportunity to build a new high school that replaces the building that is in most need of upgrades, and to build a high school from the ground up that fits the district’s needs for 21st Century learning.
“We all understand that the high school is the building that needs the most maintenance,” school board member Charles Beatty said.
John Auerbach read from a prepared statement outlining why, with the choice narrowed down to a new middle school or a new high school, he was in favor of the latter.
“It addresses our most critical issues in the current high school first with a solution that is certain to deliver the best educational outcome for our students where it will have the most impact,” Auerbach said. He added that building a new high school on the Sunnyside Road site “requires limited investment and no expansion at the severely limited State Road campus beyond addressing neglected maintenance to achieve a (grades) 6 to 8 middle school configuration in a building that will be a huge step up for middle school students.”
Auerbach also noted that the district could move forward with improvements to the existing high school for the current students this summer.
While the costs of the project are a concern to the Avon Grove School Board members, there are reasons for optimism that the local impact can be lessened. District officials are hopeful that Avon Grove will receive some reimbursement for the costs of the project through the state’s PlanCON process. The district has already filed the necessary documents to reserve Avon Grove’s place in line for reimbursement, and Marchese said that he believes the project will qualify for reimbursement.
School board member Bill Wood said that he recently met with representatives from State Sen. Andrew Dinniman’s office and he, too, believes that the district will be reimbursed once the state revamps PlanCON. Any reimbursement that the district receives could decrease the local burden on taxpayers.
After nearly two and a half hours of discussion, school board president Tracy Lisi asked each board member to say whether they supported the option of building a middle school or the option of building a high school. Although it wasn’t a formal vote, the nine school board members all said that they would support the construction of a high school.
There is hope that once the new school is built and the current high school is converted into a middle school, a new, revenue-generating purpose for the current middle school can be found―perhaps as a location for course offerings from the Chester County Intermediate Unit or the Technical College High School.
The school board will continue the discussion about facilities planning on Thursday, April 12 at the Avon Grove High School, in preparation for the final vote on a plan that is expected to take place on Thursday, April 26.