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Changes to elementary schools still up in the air; MASD plans to survey residents again on options

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 1/29/20

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

Middletown Area School District should rethink building a new elementary school to get through a projected enrollment surge, President Linda Mehaffie …

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Changes to elementary schools still up in the air; MASD plans to survey residents again on options

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Middletown Area School District should rethink building a new elementary school to get through a projected enrollment surge, President Linda Mehaffie said during the school board’s Jan. 21 meeting.

Mehaffie said a new building will not be ready by 2023, when she said district enrollment for grades kindergarten through 5 is supposed to spike.

The district also plans a new community survey to be released soon, less than a year after one was completed, in hopes that residents now have a better understanding of some of the options facing the district.

The district’s current elementary enrollment of 1,134 students is projected to increase year by year to peak at 1,271 by 2024-25, according to projections provided to the district by DecisionInsite.

After 2024-25, elementary enrollment is to slightly decline or remain flat through 2029-30. However, the 1,239 projected for 2029-30 is 105 more students than now.

Mehaffie suggested that in the short term, the district could get through the enrollment crunch without a new school by moving fifth-graders from the district’s three elementaries to the middle school, which would require adding modular classroom trailers to that building.

“It’s a lot cheaper than … to be trying to build a new school and do everything we possibly can do. I don’t know, I’m just throwing it out there,” Mehaffie said during the meeting. “It’s a lot of money, a lot of money to build a school and then three years four years five years down the road we don’t need that school.”

The idea of shifting grades instead of building a new school also appealed to board Vice President Michael Corradi.

“When I was in (Middletown) middle school for a few years, sixth grade was down with the elementary level and middle school was only 7 and 8. I think there are some things we can continue to look at. My concern is that we just jump in and say we are building this new school. I don’t think anyone is truly there yet.”

Corradi also said he could not support a new school as long as the district has any plans to keep Kunkel and Fink elementaries open.

“To me, that’s not doing any of our taxpayers, our students and our community any good, and being fiscally responsible,” he said.

Superintendent Lori Suski said that she believes there is a possibility the district could “ride out the [enrollment] wave with some modular classrooms.”

However, Suski noted the board a few years back had rejected the idea of adding modular classrooms, when the district proposed it to create more space for the new alternative education program. The district went back to the drawing board and found a way to house the program using existing space.

Suski also pointed out that even if the district can get through the enrollment crunch without a new building, renovations are still needed at Kunkel and Fink.

“We have aging infrastructure at Kunkel and Fink that no matter what needs to be addressed,” Suski said. “Those things are not going to go away.”

Seventeen months into a decision-making exploration that began in August 2018, the calls from Mehaffie and Corradi to rethink the new school is just one example of how the process is still evolving.

As the board continues weighing the future of Fink and Kunkel, support is growing for what the district refers to as the “center-based” model, where elementary students in one or more grades are all housed in one building, regardless of where they live in the district.

A recent survey of elementary teachers and staff done by the district found that 54 percent of respondents found the center-based model “most consistent” with a set of educational guiding principles, Suski said.

Suski saw that as significant movement from several years ago, when teachers were split down the middle on whether they favored the center-based model or retaining the neighborhood schools.

“There has been a little bit of a paradigm shift since the last time we did a survey of our staff,” Suski said. “It seems like the staff are really beginning to feel that there could be some benefit to moving in this direction.”

According to Suski, written comments from the teachers surveyed emphasized educational equity — that all district students receive the same quality of education regardless of where they live or which school they attend.

Suski and several board members also recently toured Bear Creek Elementary School in Elizabethtown Area School District. The school houses grades 4 through 6 throughout the district and is considered a model for the center-based concept.

Academic achievement has improved for the students since they were all brought together at Bear Creek, compared to when they were at separate elementaries, according to the Elizabethtown superintendent, Suski told the board.

“That really helped to sell me a little bit more on the concept of the center-based model, because she (the superintendent) is someone who lived it and saw the benefits,” Suski said.

But Mehaffie after the meeting told the Press & Journal that Bear Creek is in the process of moving its fifth-graders to the middle school, not for academic reasons but due to enrollment and financial considerations.

Among options the Middletown district has presented for how to proceed is a “hybrid” option, where the district employs  a center-based model for grades 4 and 5 at Reid.

The hybrid option preserves Fink and Kunkel as neighborhood schools serving grades kindergarten through 3.

The hybrid option doesn’t call for a new school but would require extensive renovations to Fink, Kunkel and Reid, costing anywhere from $33.4 million to $36.3 million.

The district’s “center-based model” option calls for closing Kunkel and Fink and building a new school to house all students in grades 2 through 5.

The new building would be constructed either on the same campus where Reid elementary and the high and middle schools are now, or it would be built at the present Kunkel site.

Reid would be converted to house all district students in grades kindergarten and first grade under the center-based model, which in total would cost $34.9 million to $37.3 million.

A big unknown with basing the center-based model on the same campus as Reid and the middle and high schools is what road improvements would be required to handle the added traffic volume, and at what cost.

“It may become cost-prohibitive to even consider the campus site, which is why the administration would prefer to see a (traffic) study done before a decision is made” on which option to choose, Suski told the Press & Journal in an email.

Another community survey

In February 2019, just more than 60 percent of district residents responding to a district survey said they preferred keeping the status quo of Fink, Kunkel and Reid over the center-based model.

A year later, Suski and the board now want to survey district residents essentially on the same thing again.

“Some of the board members felt that there were constituents who did not really understand what a centers-based model is. Therefore, they have asked me to design another survey that explains the model in detail,” Suski told the Press & Journal when asked about the reason for  a second survey.

Asked the same question by the Press & Journal, Mehaffie said the district needs to explain to residents “exactly what the center-based model learning is, so when the survey is taken, they know what they are replying to.”

Residents also need to know what a new school will cost, and that going to the center-based model may mean “losing the neighborhood schools,” Mehaffie said.

The district plans to have the community survey ready to put out by the middle or end of next week, Suski told the Press & Journal in an email.

The survey will be made available to district parents electronically through the district’s School Messenger email. All other district residents can take the survey through the school district website, www.raiderweb.org.

The district hopes to have survey results back in time to review with the board during the Feb. 18 meeting.

Where to go from here?

Asked by the Press & Journal what more the board needs to know to make decisions, Mehaffie said board members “need to know what are we trying to solve” — an “enrollment challenge” or whether to embrace the center-based model.

The district had said the board should act by July 2021, a deadline the state set for the district to get reimbursement to cover part of the cost of renovating and expanding Kunkel.

However, the board and Suski during the Jan. 21 meeting said the decision should not be tied to whether the district can get state reimbursement.

Moreover, there’s no guarantee the district will get  reimbursement because it is subject to the state budget process, Chief Financial Officer David Franklin said.

“If we are comfortable walking away from that, we can take all the time we need,” Suski said.

“The board is in no hurry to make a decision,” Mehaffie told the Press & Journal after the meeting. “We all want to be informed and do the best for the students and be fiscally responsible at the same time.”