Avon Grove votes to build new high school
● By Steven Hoffman
The Avon Grove School District will be constructing a new high school on the Sunnyside Road site following a momentous decision by the school board on April 26.
The school board voted 9-0 on a resolution approving the construction of a new high school as a long-term solution to the district's facilities needs—specifically the aging and overcrowded secondary schools. The resolution also calls for the district to renovate the current high school and convert it into a middle school for grades 6 to 8. Additionally, the district's elementary schools will be realigned so that the Avon Grove Intermediate School will serve grades two through five and Penn London Elementary will serve students in kindergarten and first grade. All the modular classrooms will be removed once all the construction and renovation work is completed. The district will also seek a new purpose for the existing middle school that will generate revenues for the district.
Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said, “I am extremely excited for the Avon Grove School District community. Many countless hours have gone into this extensive facilities review, and I am pleased with the decision of the board to move forward in a way that will benefit the students of the Avon Grove School District for many years to come. It feels really good to be a part of something that forever will leave its mark on this community.”
The decision by the school board concludes years of analysis, planning, and discussions. As far back as 2007, the school district purchased the Sunnyside Road property in anticipation of future growth needs. By 2014, district officials had begun working with financial planners and community members on developing a comprehensive facilities plan to best serve the students of Avon Grove. A Facilities Input Group comprised of a broad cross-section of stakeholders started studying the facilities needs of the district in 2016. The Facilities Input Group spent the next 16 months analyzing a variety of demographics data, student enrollment projections, and other relevant information to develop a list of building options that would address the overcrowding of schools. Avon Grove's buildings operate at 141 percent of their functional capacity, and the high school and middle school, in particular, are overcrowded. The Facilities Input Group ultimately recommended, in September of 2017, that the construction of a new middle school be the centerpiece of a plan to address facilities needs. The plan called for an extensive renovation of the existing high school and middle school buildings to transform them into a high school with the collaborative spaces necessary to create a 21st century learning environment for students. A series of more than 20 listening post sessions took place in the last few months of 2017. The listening posts gave district officials the opportunity to not only share information with stakeholders about the district's facilities needs, but to also gather feedback from the community about the schools.
The district's committee-of-the-whole then met twice a month for several months to analyze all the options available to the district. During those meetings, the committee-of-the-whole made decisions that narrowed the options based on how well they met the academic and financial needs of the district. By the time the April 3 meeting took place, the school board had reached a consensus that constructing a new high school was the best option. This option was slightly less expensive than the one that the Facilities Input Group recommended that would include building a new middle school and doing a more extensive renovation of the existing high school and middle school buildings.
One result of the lengthy, meticulous and orderly process of evaluating the options that the district used in the decision-making was that by the time school board president Tracy Lisi read the two-page resolution at the April 26 meeting, it was fairly certain that five board members, at a minimum, would vote in favor of constructing a new high school. The resolution outlined the educational outcomes that are to be achieved by the project, the benefits that the community will see as a result of those outcomes, and the physical updates to buildings that the school board is authorizing.
School board member Bill Wood made the motion to approve the resolution, while board vice president Bonnie Wolff seconded it.
District officials have been studying and discussing the facilities options for more than two years so the discussions before the vote were limited—what more, at this point, could be said that hadn't already been said?
The Avon Grove School Board voted unanimously in favor of the resolution authorizing the construction of the new high school.
Next, the school board discussed a resolution regarding the parameters for spending for the project. The resolution that the board was voting on included the following:
“The Board of School Directors selects the $127 million funding level with a stated goal to remain within the Act 1 adjusted index limits for the district's budget, or by employing exceptions that, if approved by PDE [The Pennsylvania Department of Education], would allow the district to set millage rates accordingly, without requiring referenda.”
School board member Herman Engel made the motion, while Wolff seconded it.
This vote on this resolution was not unanimous, however. Four board members had already made it clear during the committee-of-the-whole meetings that they were not in favor of spending parameters that went up to the $127 million level.
When the vote was taken, the resolution was adopted by a vote of 5-4. Lisi, Wolff, Wood, Engel, and Jeffrey Billig voted for the resolution, while school board members John Auerbach, Charles Beatty, Rick Dumont, and Lynn Weber voted against it.
Several board members in opposition to the spending parameters reiterated some concerns that had been discussed at length during the course of the facilities planning sessions—that the project will require tax increases at or near the Act 1 index limit, that the borrowing at this level would leave the district without financial flexibility for other expenses, and that the costs of the project could lead to program cuts.
Those in favor of spending up to the $127 million level pointed to the need to finally address the overcrowded and inadequate school buildings at the secondary level, as well as the need to provide students with the facilities that will allow for STEM education and 21st Century learning to take place. It was also observed that previous boards had made short-sighted decisions to renovate buildings instead of doing what is necessary for students.
“Any tax increase places a burden on residents in the community,” said Wood. “It's a difficult balance to strike.”
Billig acknowledged that he was disappointed that several school board members were not willing to approve the spending parameters that are necessary even though they did see the need for a new high school. He explained that if the school district ends up being reimbursed by the state through the PlanCON process, the local burden for the project will be fairly close to the $102 million to $105 million that four school board members had agreed was necessary to spend for the project.
Wolff said that with proper planning, she was confident that the school district would be able to accomplish all the facilities improvements for less than the $127 million.
Now that the school board has approved the construction of a new high school and the renovation of the existing high school into a middle school, as well as the spending parameters to accomplish this, the next steps include preparing requests for proposals for project management services, civil engineering services, and architectural services. Details about the project will be available on the district's website at www.avongrove.org.
With a plan now in place, district officials are looking forward to the next phases of the facilities project, and to the day when a new high school will open in Avon Grove.
“This facilities project,” said Lisi, “will be a long-term investment in our community.”