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|Input Makes Pottstown Schools Plan Picture Clearer, Mercury 3-12-10|
POTTSTOWN — Several new pieces of the puzzle about what to do with Pottstown's five elementary schools were revealed during a fractious three-hour meeting Wednesday night, not the least of which is that 77 percent of elementary parents who responded to a survey oppose some of the plans being discussed.
The meeting of the Neighborhood Schools Committee attracted about 50 people to the Pottstown Middle School auditorium as well as lots of questions, lots of invective, lots of perspectives and lots of information.
The items on the table include installing energy efficient windows at Rupert and Edgewood elementary schools and installing geo-thermal heating, upgraded wiring, new lighting and technology connections at all five elementary schools.
Also on the table was discussion of moving the fifth grade out of those schools and into the middle school, where there is excess capacity, as well as moving the pre-K classes out of the buildings into classes run off-site by private providers which have partnered with the district.
Of most immediate concern is an April 1 deadline for applying for low-to-zero interest loans available through the federal stimulus program.
Beth Yoder, president of the Federation of Pottstown Teachers, said on Monday, the federation sent survey forms home with the elementary school children and within 48 hours had received more than 500 responses.
That represents 31 percent of enrolled students and is more than 200 percent of the average survey response. "This enormous response indicates how important these issues are to the families of Pottstown," she said.
The results showed 72 percent of the 120 fourth grade parents who responded oppose moving the fifth grade into the middle school.
It also showed that 87 percent of the more than 300 parents of all other grade levels oppose the changes as well.
A small number of parents, 38, said they needed more information before making up their minds.
Experts from Hersh and Schiller & Assoc. engineering and Crabtree Rohrbaugh architecture firms talked about the feasibility and cost of installing geo-thermal heating in all five schools, saying all five schools are candidates and estimating it would cost just over $13 million.
Both said at all five schools, something absolutely must be done about the heating systems, some of which are at twice their life expectancy due almost solely to diligent maintenance.
David Hersh said all five schools have enough property to house the 350-foot-deep wells that would be necessary for a geo-thermal system. Generally, depending on energy prices, payback on such systems is ten to 15 years and energy savings are between 30 and 35 percent, he said.
Doug Rohrbaugh said installing geo-thermal, electric service upgrades, new ceilings, new energy-efficient lighting, low-flow plumbing and new windows at Rupert and Edgewood would cost between $1.8 million at Rupert (the least expensive) to $2.1 million at Barth (the most expensive).
Add fees, contingency and another $1 million to modify the high school to house administrative offices and the total cost estimate comes out to $13.2 million. That estimate does not include doing any work in the middle school as information on that change has not been prepared.
The district's administration provided its initial reaction to and assessment of the impact of the idea of moving the district's fifth grade into the middle school and the 4K to off-site, district-supervised providers.
(The full presentation is available at the district's Web site —www.pottstownschools.com —under the "neighborhood schools committee information" link on the left of the main page.)
Assistant Superintendent Reed Lindley and Director of Education Jeff Sparagana provided several "reality checks" which include the observation that "the majority of the board is committed to five elementary schools;" that economic realities drive grade configuration as much as educational philosophy; and that while there are effective schools of many grade configurations, the most effective are designed for a particular configuration.
Noting that "we cannot continue to support the escalating economics of the status quo," the administration said the district must "creatively explore alternative funding and delivery options."
Both said the board should apply for the stimulus loan while Business Manager Linda Adams works with a financial planner to provide financial options for the board.
That won't be an easy task given that without engaging any of these projects, Adams' office is projecting a budget shortfall of $1.9 million in the 2010-11 school year.
A deficit of $2.3 million is projected for the following year.
Superintendent David Krem said paying off a $15 million bond over 15 years would add $108 to the annual property tax bill of a property assessed at $80,000, the borough median.
The other option, he said, is to cut the budget by $1 million a year to cover those costs.
Lisa Snyder, the director of elementary special education read a statement from her boss, Pamela Bateson, which warned that moving the fifth grade to the middle school might result in unforeseen costs, would require the hiring of about four new employees and could put the district in danger of sanctions from the state.
All three committee members, Chairman Thomas Hylton and members Valerie Harris and Nat White, said the panel is merely exploring ideas, but is doing so with an eye toward the April 1 deadline for applying for the stimulus funding, which may carry interest as low as zero percent.
They voted unanimously to recommend that the full school board vote to apply for those funds, but also acknowledged that whatever the full board decides to do ultimately may look very different from what is being discussed right now.
All three also said the proposal was put forward at the request of other board members who continually asked for an overall plan, but said it is a starting point for discussion.
They said other input is welcomed and that if the administration or teachers or the community find it untenable then other options will have to be considered