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Keep three elementary schools, says MASD survey; adding on to Fink — upward — a possibility

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 2/13/19

Most people responding to a recent online survey want Middletown Area School District to keep its current configuration of housing elementary students in three buildings in three locations.

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Keep three elementary schools, says MASD survey; adding on to Fink — upward — a possibility

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Most people responding to a recent online survey want Middletown Area School District to keep its current configuration of housing elementary students in three buildings in three locations.

Just more than 60 percent of 652 respondents preferred the current model, compared to a “center-based” model where all elementary students are housed at one campus.

Just less than 40 percent of respondents preferred the center-based model, according to results of the survey that were reported to the school board by Superintendent Lori Suski on Feb. 5.

Suski said that the current model was preferred by most respondents who identified themselves as district parents.

District teachers split roughly 50-50 on the question, Suski said — the same result as five years ago, when the school district had polled faculty regarding the possibility of moving to a center-based model.

The district completed the survey as part of the board’s ongoing consideration of how the school district can best meet a 10 percent increase in elementary enrollment, based on projections from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The district now has three elementaries — Fink in Middletown, Reid, which is located on the same campus as the high and middle schools in Lower Swatara Township, and Kunkel along Fulling Mill Road in Lower Swatara.

The school board in October had reached informal consensus to go with the center-based model by building a new elementary school on the same campus as Reid, which would be renovated. This consolidation would have led to closing both Fink and Kunkel.

The consensus was driven by concerns that Kunkel, which needs renovating and expansion, would need to be closed in light of 239 acres of adjacent farmland in the township being put up for sale.

The board and district administrators had concluded this would lead to the land being rezoned to a use such as commercial or industrial that could negatively impact keeping a school at Kunkel.

However the board is reconsidering retaining Kunkel, following a Nov. 28 public meeting where some district parents and residents argued in favor of renovating or expanding it.

Of the 652 respondents, 415 — 63.6 percent — identified themselves as district parents. Another 164 — 25.15 percent — were district employees. The remaining 73 respondents were residents with no students in district schools.

The survey also asked respondents to rank from 1 to 12 the factors they view as most important regarding a potential realignment of elementary schools.

A clear majority — 389 — identified school safety and security is the top priority. Second closest was elementary class size as determined by teacher to student ratio, ranked highest by 92 respondents; followed by the project’s “impact” on property taxes being judged most important by 51 respondents.

Board members voiced no immediate reactions to the survey results during the Feb. 5 meeting.

“I think for everyone it’s about are we looking at what is best educationally or are we looking at what is best economically, and unfortunately as we all know in school districts we have to look at both, because we don’t have a choice,” Suski said. “We cannot continue to just raise taxes … we have to be cognizant of that as we make the decision, and we also have to look at educationally what are we doing to help our kids.”

The district also has found that research is inconclusive regarding which model is best when it comes to educating children — center-based or retaining the current model, Suski told the board.

Suski in an email to the Press & Journal on Monday said other superintendents she has talked with whose districts have gone to the center-based model “have reported it (the center-based model) to be successful, although no actual study on its effects have been done in those districts.”

During the Feb. 5 meeting Suski noted that among school districts in this region, Derry Township School District has utilized the center-based model for many years, and Mechanicsburg Area School District has recently moved to a center-based model.

Suski said she is speaking with superintendents of both the Derry and Mechanicsburg districts.

In the same email she referred to the possibility of a “hybrid of both center-based and neighborhood schools” emerging, but declined to elaborate as details had not yet been shared with the board.

And during the same Feb. 5 meeting — as if to underscore the district remains open to all options — Suski floated the idea of keeping Fink, Reid and Kunkel, but more evenly balancing the number of students at each building by adding onto Fink.

Kunkel and Reid now each have close to 500 students in grades kindergarten through 5, while Fink has about 250, Suski said.

Enlarging Fink could lead to each school having 300 to 350 students, Suski said, noting research regarding the educational advantages of smaller buildings with smaller class sizes.

Responding to board President Linda Mehaffie asking where room can be found to expand Fink, Suski suggested the district could build upward by adding a floor.

Building out would mean losing a playground, or encroaching on parking at next door War Memorial Field — neither of which are viable options, Suski said.

The district is still gathering data and information. For example, consulting architects are to present comprehensive renovation cost estimates for both Fink and Kunkel to the board on Feb. 19.

The district is not looking for a final decision from the board before June, Suski said.

“We can take the next four to five months to really weigh all options,” she said in the email. “We are taking our time and doing our due diligence to look at every factor before decisions are made.”