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Diverse opinions shared for future of MASD's elementary schools at forum

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 12/5/18

Opinions on what the Middletown Area School Board should do with a plan to reconfigure the district’s elementary schools were all over the map during a meeting to gather input from residents …

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Diverse opinions shared for future of MASD's elementary schools at forum

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Opinions on what the Middletown Area School Board should do with a plan to reconfigure the district’s elementary schools were all over the map during a meeting to gather input from residents Nov. 28.

The Large Group Instruction room at Kunkel Elementary School was packed with an estimated 80 residents.

The district says something must be done to provide more room at the elementary level for projected enrollment growth.

Several scenarios were presented at the meeting, based on Pennsylvania Department of Education data.

The scenario recommended by consulting architects Crabtree Rohrbaugh is to take current district elementary enrollment of 1,163 and add 10 percent, for a projected future total of 1,279.

Some spoke in support of an option the board and district seems to favor: centralizing all elementary students on the same campus off Route 441 that now includes the high school, middle school, and Reid Elementary.

Option A — in which the district builds a new elementary on the campus for grades 2 through 5, and renovates Reid to house kindergarten and first grade — “is the only one that truly makes sense,” said Chris Long, of Royalton.

There is no timeline for now as to when a decision will be made.

Improve Kunkel?

But other residents advocated for an option the district did not present — improving Kunkel and keeping it open.

The district in 2016 submitted planning documents to the state calling for renovating Kunkel and adding 10 classrooms. But the district started rethinking that in August, when 239 acres of farm around Kunkel in Lower Swatara Township were put up for sale.

The district fears losing control of the land around Kunkel, because of the prospects of the acreage being rezoned after it is sold.

“There should be an option D that had to do with Kunkel, the original option of expanding it,” said Sam Selcher, a former school board member. “I question the idea of what’s happening around the neighborhood as significant at all here. You put up a fence, you are isolated from whatever is built there. You have a nice piece of land here. This is a nice building. It might need some work, might need some addition to it.”

The main campus doesn’t have enough parking, and putting all elementary schools there will make it worse, said Lynda Bosnyak, whose children and grandchildren went to Kunkel. She suggested buying the land around Kunkel and expanding the school.

One building?

Jessica Kauffman extolled the benefits of all elementary grades being in one building, as at Kunkel, citing positive interaction among older and younger students. However, she said she didn’t necessarily support just one elementary school.

She said she worries about what will happen if Kunkel is closed, and how long the building will “just sit here” before becoming “an eyesore.”

The centralized model Long referred to also would close Fink Elementary School in Middletown, with its future use undetermined.

What about Fink?

But both of the two other options presented keep Fink open as a school in some capacity.

One option would renovate Fink to house all kindergarten classes, renovate Reid for grades 1 and 2 and build the new school on the central campus for grades 3 to 5.

The third option has grades K-5 at both Fink and Reid, with a new K-5 being built on another site not yet identified.

The only resident arguing strongly for keeping Fink open as a neighborhood school was Middletown resident David Clouser.

“You wreck all these neighborhood schools under the guise of centrality. Look at Lower Dauphin — they have about five different schools out and among the neighborhoods. That’s the model we should be looking at, not this consolidation,” Clouser said.

However, Long countered Middletown cannot afford that luxury.

“Middletown is far under the median (income) range of what LD is, so for us to maintain that many schools it makes more sense just to go to a small condensed district where you can maintain three schools and stay in one” campus, Long said.

The three options are close in terms of estimated cost, ranging from $35 million to $38 million — so the board can focus on what is best educationally, said architect Scott Cousin of Crabtree Rohrbaugh.

Based on the 2016 submission, upgrading Kunkel would run up to $22.4 million and building a new Kunkel at the site would run from $27.5 to $29.7 million, Cousin said — adding these estimates would have to be updated to reflect the revised projected enrollment figures the district is now using.

Property tax increase

Whatever option the board picks will require district property taxes going up, with the increase being phased in over a number of years, according to district Chief Financial Officer David Franklin.

Emphasizing that any scenario must be considered very preliminary, Franklin outlined one example of a $30 million borrowing where taxes go up by about 0.21 or 0.22 mills each year for six years.

That adds $21 or $22 a year to the tax bill of a house assessed at $100,000, for a total increase of $131 after  six years, he said.

Financial consultants also have run a scenario based on a $50 million borrowing, with taxes going up by 0.41 or 0.42 mills each year, for a total increase of $247 on a $100,000 home after six years.

If the district starts phasing in the increase earlier — beginning with the 2019-20 school year — the increases could be phased in over eight years, Franklin said.

A long phase-in “could reduce the millage impact (needed) each year and perhaps even save some of the potential mills needed,” Franklin added.

Once the board decides what to do, a year will be needed for building design, followed by two years for construction, Cousin said.

Under the “most accelerated” timetable it would take until 2020 to complete design, with construction finished by 2022.