Avon Grove holds Act 34 Hearing for new high school project
● By Steven Hoffman
The Avon Grove School District held the Act 34 Hearing for the new high school project on Sept. 12. A large crowd turned out to listen to a presentation about the scope of the project, including the costs and designs for the new school on the Sunnyside Road, and to share their views on the current plan under consideration.
School board president Tracy Lisi formally convened the hearing at approximately 6:30 p.m. in the Avon Grove High School auditorium, and then Andrew Rau, the school district solicitor, introduced seven of the nine school board members who were in attendance. Rau explained that this is not a typical school board meeting, as evidenced by the fact that the board members were seated with the rest of the audience, as well as the presence of a court reporter. The proceedings were being recorded and would be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education as part of the record for the project.
Four people were sworn in so that they could provide testimony during the Act 34 Hearing. Avon Grove superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese, project architect Mike Strohecker of KCBA Architects, Inc., John Frey, a financial advisor from PFM Financial Advisors, LLC., and Ken Phillips, the financial advisor of RBC Capital Markets then took turns outlining various aspects of the project.
It was Marchese’s duty to recap the history of the project, explain why there is a need for the project under consideration, and detail all the options that were considered before a plan was put in place.
The school district acquired the 153-acre parcel near Old Baltimore Pike and Route 796 in Penn Township back in 2007, and the school board at that time did some preliminary planning for a school construction project on that site—maybe a high school, maybe a middle school. But the national economic slowdown in 2008 prompted the school board to put those plans on hold. For a number of years, with the school district facing tight budgets, the plans remained on hold.
Marchese explained that in 2014, the school district’s Facilities Committee started analyzing the long-term needs for school buildings. Gilbert Architects was enlisted to do a feasibility study in 2014, and by the spring of the next year the district had the results: the aging high school, in particular, was a weak spot, and was not meeting the educational needs of students. Enrollment far surpassed the functional capacity of the building—as everyone knew—and a series of renovations and additions in 1995, 1997, and 2008 had done little to make the building suitable for 21st century learning.
In April of 2016, the school district established a task force, the Facilities Input Group (FIG), comprised of a broad cross-section of the community, to take a comprehensive look at the district’s facilities.
Marchese explained that the high school was found to be inadequate in a number of areas—the lack of appropriate educational spaces, building safety, accessibility, building code compliance, as well as unmanageable overcrowding of core areas—at points the high school has been 500 students over its functional capacity. These facts all led the Facilities Input Group to conclude that something needed to be done to address the long-term shortcomings of the high school.
The district held a series of community listening posts from October of 2017 through January of 2018. Then, the Avon Grove School Board started having discussions about specific facilities options that would address the district’s needs. Four options emerged as ones that would meet the long-term needs of the district—to varying degrees and with very different costs.
Two of the four options included scenarios that required new construction. The first option, known by then as Option 1A, included the construction of a new high school, while another option, by then known as Option 1C, would have included the construction of a new middle school. The existing high school and middle school would be renovated and connected by new construction as part of Option 1C.
Another option called for the renovation and expansion of the existing high school, the existing middle school, and Penn London Elementary School, along with a reconfiguration of grades.
A fourth option would have called for the district to renovate and expand the existing high school and middle school on an already overcrowded State Road campus.
Ultimately, when the advantages and disadvantages of each option were thoroughly considered, the school board voted to move forward with Option 1A in April of 2018.
The school district then started work on the design, land-development, and financial aspects of the project.
A land-development application for the construction of a new high school was submitted to Penn Township nearly four months ago.
When Marchese concluded his testimony, Strohecker then discussed some of the architectural aspects of the building.
He noted that the Sunnyside Road site does have limitations. The site will require bog-turtle set-backs.
The new school building will be approximately 296,000 square feet and will be located in the northeast portion of the site. Classrooms will be built on three floors and they will be designed to accommodate different subjects being taught in them. Unlike the current high school, the administration suite will be located at the main entrance. This will result in increased security for the building. Rau noted that school districts are now careful about revealing too much about the floor plans of buildings because of concerns about school safety. Consequently, detailed floor plans were not made available to the public as part of a packet of information that was distributed at the hearing. Information about the floor plans were included as part of the presentation.
Strohecker explained that the athletic fields will be positioned to the south and northwest of the site. There will be three separate parking areas on the site. A loop road will be installed to connect South Jennersville Road with West Baltimore Pike.
Next, Frey and Phillips offered an overview of the financing for the project. The best method of financing for Avon Grove is the issuance of general obligation bonds, Frey explained. It was noted that the school district already took steps to phase in financing for the project.
“This district started putting money away for this project a long time ago,” Phillips noted.
The estimated total project cost for the new high school amounts to $114,568,737—but this figure takes into consideration everything, including the costs of the acquisition of the parcel of land that took place more than a decade ago. The district was required to include this figure in the Act 34 Hearing packet because this is the figure that will be utilized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education when calculating reimbursements for the project.
A more meaningful figure for taxpayers in the district might be the $81,001,789 that the school board established as the maximum building construction costs.
The final part of the presentation focused on the impact the project will have on the school district’s millage rate.
The school district already phased in a .36-mill increase for the 2018-2019 school year budget to start the process of paying for the project. Four more years of increases are anticipated to boost the millage rate to a level that will support the district’s increased debt service payments. overall, the direct costs of the project will require a total of 1.79 mills, with an additional .14 mills needed to pay for indirect costs related to the project. A variety of factors, including interest rates and how actual costs compare to estimated costs, will effect how much taxes will actually increase in the coming years.
With the formal presentation complete, it was the community’s turn to be able to share their views on the new high school project. More than three dozen people either participated in public comment or submitted their comments in writing.
If there was a recurring theme to the public comments, it was that those individuals who spoke were overwhelmingly and fully in support of the project as it is being planned. In fact, only one or two residents expressed any reservations at all during the entire hearing.
Many of the people who expressed support for the project pointed to the inadequacies of the current high school, and the need to provide more adequate facilities for students, especially high school students who need to take STEM classes and science classes in order to be prepared for college.
Niki Decker said that she and her husband, Matt, believe that the new high school will meet a critical need for Avon Grove. The current high school doesn’t have the space necessary to support the academic programs in the 21st century.
Niki Decker explained that she and her husband have two children and the oldest one, who is in kindergarten, wants to be an engineer. She also likes to sing.
“She. like all the other children in the school district, deserves to be able to continue to pursue these fulfilling activities,” Decker said.
Penn Township resident Sarah Pantazes expressed a sentiment that a number of people would echo throughout the hearing: the school district’s teachers provide a top-quality education to students, even though the facilities at the middle school and high school are substandard.
“There are wonderful things going on in the school district and we hope that they will continue for years to come,” Pantazes said, explaining that the new high school will strengthen the school district and the community.
Joe Clark, whose family lives in Franklin Township, said that they built a home in Avon Grove three years ago because of the quality of the schools.
“We’re proud to be a part of this community,” he said. “We support this new school. We feel it is the best possible option.”
Todd Pickard, an educator who works in a neighboring school district said that he fully supports the project.
“It’s long overdue that this high school project get completed,” he said.
West Grove resident Kerri Wright said that the school district purchased the land for a new school in 2007, when one of her two children was in kindergarten. She thought a new high school would be completed in time for both her children to attend classes in it. Her daughter graduated in 2019 and her son is in middle school. She still favors building the new high school so that future Avon Grove High School students see the benefits.
Franklin Township resident Christine Mellinger talked about how her second-grader attends class in a modular classroom, and she would like her two other children to actually be inside a building for their classes.
“We have the responsibility to support the education of our children, and I believe the new high school does that,” Mellinger said.
Nicole Ciarrocchi said that after relying on modular classrooms for the last two decades, it was time for the school district to address the facilities needs and make sure that the buildings can accommodate all the students.
Ande Williamson, whose family lives in Franklin Township, said that they moved to Avon Grove from Delaware because of the quality of schools. She said that the school hallways are overcrowded, which could create a dangerous situation, especially during an emergency.
Jerry L’ Heureux, a resident of London Britain Township, noted that in good school districts, home values increase because more people want to live there so that their children will attend quality schools. In his family, three children graduated from Avon Grove schools, and now they have a total of seven grandchildren who will be going to Avon Grove schools. He said that the expense of a new school is well worth it.
Pete Mandeville, who lives in New London Township, said that he and his wife moved into the school district a little over a year ago because of Avon Grove School District’s excellent reputation.
‘That was a big part of our decision to move here,” he said. “We are in full support of this project.”
Leslie Herb-Wallace noted that her son has already graduated from Avon Grove High School, so her family won’t see any personal benefit as a result of the new project. She still wanted to see Avon Grove move forward on building a new high school.
“I fully support this project. I can’t wait to see it go through,” she said.
Ed Farina, a resident of New London Township, talked about some of the issues that high school students have faced because nearly 1,800 students have been placed in a school that was originally built in 1957 to accommodate about 1,100 students.
“The hallways are jammed. The lunch periods can’t be accommodated in the cafeteria. The auditorium can’t accommodate all the students. This was a building that was built for 1,100 students. We have 1,800 students in this building. It’s severely overcrowded,” Farina said.
Mary Michael, a resident of London Britain Township, talked about the importance of having a high school that meets the needs of the community.
“When you love your community,” she said, “you take care of it and you invest in what unites us.”
Stephen Hollis, Jr. said that he and his wife are both proud Avon Grove graduates. He explained that the best option is for Avon Grove to build a new school so that they avoid the many risks and inconveniences that go along with trying to renovate a school building with students in it. As someone who has worked in school construction, building new is the best option.
“You should build new if you can,” Hollis said. “We can. And we should.”
Kelly Walker, a resident of Landenberg, submitted a letter saying that she fully supported the project. Another letter, expressing a similar view, was signed by a dozen or more residents. Rau read their comments and each name for the official record.
Numerous people specifically thanked the school board and the administration for all the hard work that was put into developing the best plan of action for Avon Grove.
After more than an hour and fifteen minutes of just public comments, the Act 34 Hearing concluded.
There is still time for residents and employees of the Avon Grove School District to submit written testimony that can be included as part of the official record. The written testimony can be mailed or delivered to Dr. Wendi Lee Kraft, the board secretary of the Avon Grove School District, at 375 South Jennersville Road, West Grove, PA 19390. The written testimony will be accepted for 30 days after the Act 34 Hearing, so the deadline is Oct. 14 at 4 p.m.