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Future of MASD elementaries topic of Oct. 17 special meeting; district looks at projected growth

Posted 10/9/19

By Dan Miller

and Phyllis Zimmerman

Special to the Press & Journal

Middletown Area School Board plans to hold a special meeting Oct. 17 as the next step …

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Future of MASD elementaries topic of Oct. 17 special meeting; district looks at projected growth

Kunkel, Fink and Reid elementary schools
Kunkel, Fink and Reid elementary schools

By Dan Miller

and Phyllis Zimmerman

Special to the Press & Journal

Middletown Area School Board plans to hold a special meeting Oct. 17 as the next step toward deciding how the school district will prepare for projected future enrollment growth in the elementary grades.

The meeting will feature a presentation by architects Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates regarding a potential elementary building project and will begin at 6 p.m. in the high school auditorium.

The Crabtree and Rohrbaugh firm conducted an initial feasibility study for the district in 2018. At that time, consultants advised the district to plan for at least a 10 percent increase in enrollment over the next several years. District officials have said that Middletown doesn’t have enough room in its elementary buildings now to accommodate such growth.

The board during its Aug. 20 meeting also renewed for one year the school district’s contract with DecisionInsite, a California-based company that the district first hired in March to do a deep-dive analysis of the Pennsylvania Department of Education enrollment projections.

In April, Superintendent Lori Suski presented new DecisionInsite figures that projected greater enrollment growth for the district over the next 10 years than the state Department of Education projections used in last year’s district feasibility study.

DecisionInsite also predicted in April that much of the anticipated growth will result from new development in Middletown, and not Lower Swatara Township as previously anticipated.

Suski said last week that updated data regarding enrollment projections in the district will be included in architects’ presentation Oct. 17.

“We had a very good meeting with Crabtree and Rohrbaugh and fleshed out three options (for building planning) for the presentation,” Suski told the school board Oct. 1.

The district wants to keep DecisionInsite on board so the firm can provide updated enrollment projection data, as the school board over the next several months continues finding its way toward a decision.

The main options remain either renovating and expanding Kunkel Elementary School, or closing Kunkel and consolidating all elementary students in the district’s central campus off Oberlin Road in Lower Swatara Township, where the high and middle schools are located.

Housing all elementary students on the central campus would require building a new elementary school at the site, and renovating Reid Elementary School.

The fate of Fink Elementary School must also be decided, especially if the board chooses to go with the central campus option.

The board and district have not announced when the school board must make a decision.

However, the timetable is controlled to an extent by a July 2021 deadline that the state has set for the board to award construction bids if it chooses to renovate and expand Kunkel.

The board would have to act by then in order for the district to qualify to receive reimbursement from the state for the Kunkel project.

The district would qualify to receive reimbursement for the Kunkel project because the district first submitted the project to the state for consideration in 2016.

Since then, the state has placed a moratorium on the reimbursement of any further building projects. So until that changes, if the district decides to construct a new building on the central campus instead of keeping Kunkel, that project will not be eligible for reimbursement, according to Suski.

While the district for now still wants to preserve the reimbursement option that would go with the Kunkel project, consulting architects to the district have also advised that the board’s decision on how to proceed should be based upon what is best for the students educationally.

The July 2021 timetable to award bids for Kunkel provides an unofficial deadline, as the school district and board should take as much time as possible on project design before any project goes out for bid, district Director of Operations William T. Meiser told the school board on Aug. 20.

Meiser reminded the board that the district spent 18 months designing the new high school before the project went out for bid.

“The longer we wait, the harder it is going to be to ensure that we have everything covered,” he said.

Devoting so much time to design meant the board while building the new high school only had to approve change orders — which drive up the cost of a project — totaling less than 1 percent of the total cost of the project, Suski added.

“We spent so much time focusing on the details of that project (that) we didn’t have to keep coming back to the board and say ‘we forgot this, we forgot that,’” she said.

Kunkel has needed renovations for some time, and that seemed a foregone conclusion until August 2018, when owners of the 239-acre Williams farm — part of which borders Kunkel — put the land up for sale.

Concerns over a new owner turning the property into a warehouse or some other type of use that would be in conflict with an elementary school led the district and board to explore other options for how to deal with the projected enrollment increase.

Renovating Kunkel wasn’t even presented to the public as an option by the board when the board held a public meeting in November 2018.

However, a number of residents at that meeting urged the board keep Kunkel and upgrade it for the future.

In February, the school district surveyed residents and staff regarding what to do. A majority of those responding favored the district continue housing elementary students at all three buildings — Fink, Kunkel and Reid.

Suski on Aug. 20 told the board that given the enrollment projections, the district doesn’t have the luxury of waiting to see what will happen to the farm.

“We are back in that same quandary of not knowing what could potentially come there. That also makes this difficult as well,” she said.

The board in June also gave final approval to a 2019-20 budget that raised the district property tax by 2.44 percent, the first increase since 2014-15.

The biggest reason cited for the tax increase was the need to start putting away funds to pay for the elementary school building project.