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Close Kunkel, Fink and build new school? Public meeting likely on possible central campus

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 10/10/18

A special public meeting regarding the future of Kunkel Elementary School, and possibly locating all elementary grades on a central campus, is being planned by Middletown Area School District. …

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Close Kunkel, Fink and build new school? Public meeting likely on possible central campus

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A special public meeting regarding the future of Kunkel Elementary School, and possibly locating all elementary grades on a central campus, is being planned by Middletown Area School District.

The district is looking to hold the meeting shortly after Thanksgiving, possibly during the last week of November, district Superintendent Lori Suski told the Press & Journal in an email.

The school board during its Oct. 2 meeting reached informal consensus on building a new elementary school on the central campus in Lower Swatara Township, within the same complex where Reid Elementary School is located.

Closing Kunkel and Fink could benefit district and students: Editorial

The consensus emerged from discussions the board has been holding in recent months over what to do about Kunkel, which was constructed in 1962.

Besides closing Kunkel, putting all the elementary grades on one campus would mean closing Fink Elementary School on Race Street in Middletown.

Kunkel was renovated and expanded in 1996 but needs upgrading again, in part to handle projected increased district enrollment in the coming years.

In addition, parts of Kunkel do not meet requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act for handicapped accessibility, according to a feasibility study done in 2012 by district consulting architects Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates and updated in 2016.

Not being ADA-compliant means these areas of the school cannot be used to meet educational programming needs, the architects said.

The district and board also recently learned that the land surrounding Kunkel in Lower Swatara Township is for sale.

The concern that the district could no longer have long-term control over the land surrounding the school is among factors driving the desire to locate all elementary grades kindergarten through 5 on the central campus.

As Suski noted during the Oct. 2 meeting, “We have no idea what’s coming in there,” regarding who will buy the land around the school, or what the land will be used for.

Putting all elementary grades on the central campus mean the district would construct a new building on the central campus.

The concept calls for constructing the new building behind the middle school, near an athletic field known as Field 14. A site plan would have to be developed to determine the exact location.

Reid Elementary School would not be expanded, although renovations to the restrooms would be needed, Suski said in the email to the Press & Journal.

Regarding Fink, if it is no longer an elementary school, the district is looking at turning the building into a new home for district administrative offices. The building on West Water Street now housing the district offices would be sold, Suski said.

There was some discussion during the board’s Oct. 2 meeting of basing district operations and maintenance at Fink. But district Director of Operations William Meiser called that “ill advised,” saying district operations should be housed in the central campus where the schools would be located.

Board member support

While losing control over the land around Kunkel is a key consideration, multiple benefits would result from moving all the elementary grades to a central location, said board member Darnell Montgomery.

“I like the idea of having all of our buildings in one location,” said Montgomery, who is dean of students at Rowland Academy of the Harrisburg School District. “It does a lot for safety, and there’s an even greater piece for what we talked about building that culture and community.”

“It provides the ability to really be consistent across grade levels, because it is self-contained so to speak, and not in three separate buildings. I think from an academic standpoint it allows teachers to really, really collaborate across the curriculum. (A central campus) would be a great benefit from an academic standpoint, and from a teacher standpoint.”

Two presentations

The meeting planned for late November would include two presentations.

“We would present the enrollment projections for the future and the need for more space to accommodate increased enrollment” districtwide, Suski said.

Scott Cousin of Crabtree Rohrbaugh is to present various options regarding the future of Kunkel and Fink, and the possible options for locating all of K-5 on the central campus.

For example, Cousin during the Oct. 2 meeting presented several alternatives for which elementary grade levels could be housed at Reid, and which could be in the new building.

According to Cousin, given projected enrollment, Reid will not be large enough to house three elementary grades districtwide. Reid could handle two grade levels, so the new building would house the other three.

The grade alignment between Reid and the new building will be set through an analysis based on factors such as staffing, where special education classrooms are located, programming, and the district budget, Suski pointed out.

Suski said the meeting will also include a “historical perspective” regarding how elementary grades have been configured in the school district.

For example, Suski pointed out many people do not know that Fink once housed just grade 5, with the two other elementaries housing grades K through 4.

The district will lay out the positives and negatives of each scenario: maintaining three elementary buildings at three locations, and the pros and cons of moving to the center-based concept. The costs involved in each option will also be presented.

The district will factor in the possibility of Highspire students being transferred into Middletown Area School District, as sought by a coalition of Highspire residents who in August 2014 petitioned the state to approve transferring the students from Steelton-Highspire district to Middletown.

However, Cousin advised the board base its decision on what is best for Middletown students in the long run, not on what may result from the Highspire petition.

The state Department of Education rejected the Highspire petition in February, but the coalition is pursuing the petition in Commonwealth Court.

Question-and-answer period

Residents who attend the upcoming meeting will be able to ask questions for the district to answer, and provide feedback on which option they think best, Suski said.

The school district in planning a new building or major renovation is required by the state to hold a public hearing, known as an Act 34 hearing, Suski told the board Oct. 2.

However, Suski advised the board the district be more proactive in involving the public in the decision.

“If there is no discussion about options, and then all of a sudden there is a hearing, it may become extremely contentious because the constituents may feel that they have had no ability to share their feelings about going to a center-based model,” Suski said. “At the end of the day you will make that decision but you are making it on behalf of constituents, and I just feel to do due diligence to make sure that everyone has the ability to be heard.”

Suski also noted that the idea of centralizing all elementary grades in one place is not completely new.

A few years ago the district surveyed its teaching staff, regarding how faculty felt about going to a center-based concept versus preserving the neighborhood school model.

The survey came back with the faculty split — 50 percent liked the center model, 50 percent preferred the neighborhood model, Suski said.

“We never took that next step at the district to talk to parents of what their perceptions were of moving to a center model, because at that time we couldn’t get staff consensus. It just kind of died at that point.”

But updated enrollment projections that the district has received since then alone show that the district has to do something to provide more room, Suski added.

She also noted for the board that while Middletown has neighborhood schools, students often do not attend the school closest to them.

“There is no such thing this day and age” as the true neighborhood school concept, “because we already move students all over the place to balance enrollment,” Suski said. “However, psychologically there are still some folks who view it as the neighborhood school.”