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Options abound, consensus lacking for MASD elementary schools' future: Editorial

Posted 2/20/19

The Middletown Area School District is taking its time to figure out the best course of action for its elementary schools, and that is wise.

This decision will affect the future of the district …

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Options abound, consensus lacking for MASD elementary schools' future: Editorial

Posted

The Middletown Area School District is taking its time to figure out the best course of action for its elementary schools, and that is wise.

This decision will affect the future of the district for years, both financially and educationally. These are the tough, long-lasting decisions that make school board elections so important, and everyone involved wants the “correct” decision to be made.

The challenge is, what that “correct” decision is might not be evident for years, if ever.

The district has three “neighborhood” elementary schools — Kunkel off Fulling Mill Road in Lower Swatara Township, Fink on Race Street in the borough, and Reid off North Union Street, part of the MASD educational complex that includes the high school and middle school.

The school board in October, however, reached informal consensus to go with a 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 Kunkel and Fink elementary schools.

The potential to sell Kunkel Elementary School off Fulling Mill Road in Lower Swatara Township is tempting, because the massive Williams farm around it is for sale. Last year, Tom and Tiz Williams put their 239-acre farm up for sale, and part of the tract includes 33.11 acres that forms an “L” shape around Kunkel.

The timing to sell Kunkel has likely never been better, because Kunkel needs upgrades to modernize it anyway, and those come at a cost. Built in 1962 and renovated and expanded in 1996, upgrades have been estimated at $5.3 million.

The district has had multiple discussions on how to proceed, including a forum in November at Kunkel at which more than 80 people attended.

However, opinions on what the Middletown Area School Board should do with a plan to reconfigure the district’s elementary schools were all over the map during that meeting.

The district accepted written comments on the elementary reconfiguration options and plan, and continues to discuss the issue at its school board meetings.

It also conducted an online survey, to which 652 people responded. Just more than 60 percent preferred the current model, compared to a “center-based” model where all elementary students are housed at one campus.

So now what?

We are not suggesting that the online survey and resident input should be the only pieces of information that district leaders use to make a decision.

But when a survey such as this is used, and if the wishes of those surveyed are not followed, there is a danger that they will feel ignored. After all, many residents might argue, why do the survey if its results are not followed?

And we need to note that most of the people responding to the recent online survey want Middletown Area School District to keep its current configuration of housing elementary students in three buildings in three locations, which seems to fly in the face of the direction the board and administration is leaning toward taking.

Superintendent Lori Suski, at the board’s Feb. 5 meeting, threw out a couple of more options — keeping Fink, Reid and Kunkel, but more evenly balancing the number of students at each building by adding onto Fink was one. Fink could be added onto upward because of the land constraints.

In an email to the Press & Journal, she mentioned a “hybrid of both center-based and neighborhood schools” but declined to elaborate as details had not yet been shared with the board.

The board is weighing a tax increase and is trying to pay for a mini-stadium for sports as well. That’s a lot to handle all at once.

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

That is all we can ask.

What is the right decision? Time will tell, we hope.