Members of the Southern Huntingdon County School Board heard from members of the community during a town hall meeting Wednesday night to discuss the results of the feasibility study for the elementary schools.
The feasibility study, conducted by EI Associates of Harrisburg, presented various options for the district, including renovating the three elementary schools with or without the additions to things you’d find in a more modern elementary school, building a new elementary school attached to the current middle/high school or building a standalone elementary school on the campus of the middle/high school.
Superintendent Dwayne Northcraft noted to those in attendance that when they hired EI Associates to conduct this study, it wasn’t just to suggest to close the elementary schools, but to put together a formalized plan on how to best deal with the aging elementary schools in the district.
“We didn’t set out to build a new school, but what to do to fix the schools,” he said.
Peter Ortiz, vice president of EI Associates, presented additional information to area residents that’s included in the 300-page feasibility study, which is available on the district’s website.
Ortiz focused on the declining overall student population in the district in the study.
“If you look at student population, you’ve had a loss of 259 students from K-12 since 2000, and a loss of 136 from K-5 from 2005 to 2019, which is equal to the total population of students at Shade Gap Elementary School,” said Ortiz. “The last peak of all students from K-5 was 640 students, but now, we’re at 504 students overall.
“The total number of students has gone from 1,403 students from K-12 in 2001 to 1,137 in the current school year,” added Ortiz. “It’s not drastic, but it’s a steady decline, and it has an effect on classrooms and teachers.”
Ortiz pointed out that with having three elementary schools, there’s an inevitable inequity of division of kids in a classroom, which places unfair burdens on students and teachers.
“One year, you had as many as 31 kids in a classroom to 13 in a classroom,” he said. “It’s not only unfair to teachers, but kids. It’s not unique to this district, but it’s a factor when you have multiple elementary schools.
With option one, which would be to renovate the three schools, you would have 11-31 students in classrooms, and four to five classrooms per grade,” Ortiz added. “Because of the three attendance areas, you’re going to have some inequity. If you consolidate to one school, you can divide equally among teachers, and have 18-22 students per classroom, and four to five classrooms per grade. The core (for the one elementary school option) is designed for five classrooms per grade.”
Problems with each of the elementary schools were highlighted, including no separate art and music classrooms, no libraries except for book storage, vinyl asbestos tile flooring, no fire protection in that it doesn’t meet modern codes, no air conditioning, limited faculty and no health suites, just to name a few.
Additionally, unique problems were highlighted at each elementary school, including Rockhill Elementary School being located in a flood zone, an on-lot sewage treatment plant at Spring Farms Elementary School that’s original to the school and a UV treatment plant for water and the questionable capacity of the well at Shade Gap Elementary School if more students attended the school.
“The basic problem isn’t the buildings themselves, as these are things we face in renovation projects,” said Ortiz. “These buildings would lend themselves handsomely to renovations, but it’s the sites themselves that are the issue. The worst problem sites, Rockhill and Spring Farms, have over 70 percent of the student population.”
Ortiz also highlighted the costs of each option that included operation expenses that would potentially be saved with each option. Operation expenses include things like staff travel, transportation costs, food services, books and media supplies, curriculum contracts, grass mowing, snow and ice removal, garbage removal, fire and safety inspections and more.
“With the status quo, taking what you have and renovating, not adding a single thing to it, the projected total project cost is $14 million,” said Ortiz. “The Annual total share would be $869,000 per year, but if you take away the savings in the operational expenses, the annual net share would be around $838,000.”
The cost of renovating the three elementary schools, plus adding additional rooms, would cost $20,215,000, with an annual total share of $1,227,600 per year, a savings of $7,600 in operational costs.
For the option of one elementary school, either attached or detached, at the middle/high school site, the total project cost would be $27,638,000. There would be a savings of $1,063,000 in operational costs.
“You’re paying off the previous (middle/high school renovation project),” said Ortiz. “Those payments are around $800,000, and the district said they didn’t want to exceed what they’re paying now.”
Northcraft said a transportation study has been completed for the option that includes one elementary school at the middle/high school campus that can be viewed on the district’s website.
“If we would start at the same time, most of our runs, it looks like students would get home two to 15 minutes earlier,” he said. “It would cost a total of $8,000 without any rerouting.”
Northcraft noted that while the option that includes one new elementary school is below the threshold that taxes wouldn’t likely go up, that doesn’t mean there won’t ever be a tax increase.
The vast majority of residents who spoke were from the Shade Gap area.
Some teachers in the district also spoke out about issues at Rockhill Elementary School negatively impacting their ability to teach and concerns of larger class sizes.
Amanda Jenkins, a resident of Shade Gap, spoke of her concerns with increased population at one elementary school on the middle/high school site. She presented a conceptual analysis of elementary school size and school performance.
“The optimal school size is 300-350 students,” she said. “With a move to a larger school, you’re more like to see school violence, mental health issues and standardized scores decrease.”
Additionally, she also asked they consider a scenario where Rockhill Elementary School was closed, but they renovated Spring Farms and Shade Gap schools. Northcraft said they would do that.
Tonya Hileman said losing the three schools would mean losing the sense of localized communities.
“People want to live here to get the type of childhood we have — the community of a localized elementary school,” she said. “The financial spreadsheet won’t show this as as a wise decision, but some of the savings aren’t worth losing the community.”
Justin Robinson, who has taught at Rockhill Elementary School, spoke of the importance of understanding equity and equality.
“If we renovate the elementary schools, that may start equality with the physical buildings, but it doesn’t address inequity in any other way,” he said. “We have specialists that travel from building to building now, and with class sizes that vary, students aren’t getting the same opportunities in one school they may get in another. Also, another example would be that technology has to be dispersed, and you may have 10 laptops in a classroom of 12 in one school, but then you’d have 10 laptops in a classroom of 23 students in the same grade in another school.”
Jenkins also noted that larger schools sometimes create a higher lack of opportunities for disadvantaged students.
“This is why whatever option we choose, we need to have the benefits of a smaller school in a larger school environment,” she said. “If we don’t do that right, these kids would be lost.”
The Rev. Berry Brown of Fair Ridge Assembly of God in Shade Gap addressed parking concerns, as the feasibility study didn’t include addressing parking issues. Other residents brought up lack of parking during athletic events and other events.
“Parking needs to be looked at,” said Northcraft. “This is something the board has concerns with, and we will be addressing it.”
Brown also asked when the board is planning to make a decision.
“It was recommended we vote on something in August, but from conversations I’ve had with the board, I’ve told them to take their time with this,” said Northcraft. “I don’t personally see a vote happening in August, but something will happen eventually, maybe sometime in the fall.”