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Editor's Voice: Prudence must prevail in new school project

Posted 2/18/14

For a new Middletown Area High School to be built quickly and, it is hoped, as inexpensively as possible while still serving the needs of our students. The Middletown Area School Board has voted to move ahead with the project, and set a maximum …

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Editor's Voice: Prudence must prevail in new school project

Posted

For a new Middletown Area High School to be built quickly and, it is hoped, as inexpensively as possible while still serving the needs of our students. The Middletown Area School Board has voted to move ahead with the project, and set a maximum expenditure of $40.3 million for it overall.

 

It could be built without an increase in property taxes, according to a financial advisor hired by the board. It would take something of a balancing act with the school district’s debt – it would be funded through a general obligation bond and, assuming interest rates remain low, the district could delay payment on the debt principal until the district pays off debt it currently holds in 2023, the advisor said.

Some taxpayers are skeptical, insisting a renovation of the current high school is a wiser, more affordable alternative. The district says the current building is falling apart – “Literally, the building is decaying,’’ said William Meiser, the district’s director of operations. The building is only about 40 years old, leaving opponents of the project to wonder just how often the district will need to replace its schools with new buildings.

 

The district says long-range planning is indeed their goal – quality construction of the new school, with room for expansion and energy-efficient heating. And so the project has moved forward, to the point where it has been presented to the Lower Swatara Twp. commissioners.

Plans are to move quickly through the township’s approval process and begin construction this spring at the proposed site, which is the current high school campus. It would open in the fall of 2016.

But there have been signs of disagreement between the township and district officials over details of the project and requirements the township wants to place on it before it gives its approval.

Lower Swatara requested a special events parking plan from the district, which would cost an additional $22,000. While the school board approved the added expense, it was not happy to do so. “Anything else that comes up like this will be more taxpayer money,’’ said board member Michael Richards.

Some commissioners were concerned about additional signs that would be erected at the new school. The district is scheduled to ask for waivers from the township’s Zoning Hearing Board for additional signage on Wednesday, Feb. 26.

The disagreements led to the district commenting to township officials that it felt like Charlie Brown – yes, the character from “Peanuts’’ – to the township’s Lucy. Lucy always pulled the football away from Charlie Brown when he tried to kick it. The comment brought this retort from Tom Mehaffie, president of the commissioners: “I don’t consider us Lucy.’’

The new school project puts the commissioners in an interesting position: They must treat the project like any other development project, yet any additional requirements, unnecessary delays and traffic studies threaten to increase the price of the project. As taxpayers, that could affect them in the future.

Both sides have said they are willing to work together. “This is a marriage for a few years,’’ Mehaffie said after a recent township meeting in which the project was discussed. Taxpayers don’t expect shortcuts by the township just to get it approved, nor do they want unnecessary delays and additional costs. We believe both sides can be prudent. 

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