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Elementary school survey open; aging infrastructure at Kunkel, Fink is as much a concern as enrollment

By Laura Hayes

Posted 2/11/20

Here’s another chance to voice your opinion on the future of Middletown schools.

On Thursday, Middletown Area School District posted a five-question survey asking how the district should …

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Elementary school survey open; aging infrastructure at Kunkel, Fink is as much a concern as enrollment


Here’s another chance to voice your opinion on the future of Middletown schools.

On Thursday, Middletown Area School District posted a five-question survey asking how the district should configure its elementary schools. It is open through Feb. 16.

The district faces a projected increase in enrollment as well as aging infrastructure and structural issues at Kunkel and Fink elementary schools.

Superintendent Lori Suski told the school board Feb. 4 that the infrastructure, not the enrollment growth, is the bigger issue, which differs from previous conversations about the elementary options.

“The enrollment piece is secondary to the conversation about the aging systems. [Architects Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates] just asked that we keep that in mind as we’re having these discussions. Does it play a role and a factor into the decision making? Absolutely it does, but maybe not as much as we initially thought,” Suski said.

Here are the options being discussed:

• Centers-based option: Close Kunkel and Fink, build a new building for grades two through five either on the high school-middle school-Reid Elementary School campus or the Kunkel site, convert Reid to grades kindergarten to first, and complete minor renovations to Reid. Construction costs range from $35 million to $37.3 million.

• Neighborhood option: Maintain current grade alignments, comprehensive renovation and additions to Kunkel, comprehensive renovations to Fink, and minor renovations to Reid. One variation of this option would add on to Fink instead of Kunkel. Construction costs for variation one (additions at Kunkel) is estimated from $35.7 million to $38.7 million, and variation two (additions at Fink) is estimated from $33.7 million to $36.6 million.

• Hybrid option: Convert Kunkel and Fink to neighborhood schools with kindergarten through third grade, convert Reid to fourth and fifth grade, comprehensive renovations to Kunkel and Fink, additions to Fink, and minor renovations to Reid. This construction cost is estimated from $33.4 million to $36.3 million.

In an email to the Press & Journal, Suski said she planned to present the results of the survey at a school board meeting Feb. 18. During that meeting, Suski said she also planned to present her recommendation and have DecisionInsite, which completed an enrollment study for the district, on the phone in case school board members had any questions.

She doesn’t anticipate that the school board will vote on an option on Feb. 18, but she said she was hopeful that they may make a decision in March.

When any changes would be completed depends on what option the board selects. If the board opts for the center-based model, Suski estimated (based on the high school project) it would take at least a year to design a school and another two to construct it, meaning the earliest a new school would be opened is 2023-2024.

A center-based model means all elementary students in one or more grades are all housed in one building, regardless of where they live in the district.

Keeping and renovating the neighborhood schools or a hybrid option could have a shorter construction timeframe, although Suski said she didn’t anticipate that anything would be done prior to at least 2023.

The district surveyed residents last February, and results indicated that 60 percent of the 652 respondents favored the current model and 40 percent favored a center-based model.

“I was really trying to make it as clear a possible because I know the feedback we got from the last survey was we were taking it for granted that the jargon that was being used was jargon that everybody understood outside of education circles,” Suski said during the Feb. 4 school board meeting. 

The survey that went live Thursday is similar to one given recently to elementary teachers, staff and administrators. Results were presented at the Jan. 21 school board meeting.

Staff members were asked to rank nine guiding principles for the district on a scale of one to four. The principles covered curriculum and program consistency, how instruction is delivered, building security, classroom size, fiscal responsibility, what the facilities should be equipped with, student transportation efficiency, and how frequently a student should change schools in their career.

Eighty-five people who worked at Fink, Kunkel and Reid responded to the survey, and 54 percent of those respondents said the center-based model best matched the principles, 25 percent said the hybrid model matched, and 21 percent selected the neighborhood school model.

During the Feb. 4 meeting, Suski said the new survey results will come with a caveat: What if results don’t show strong support for any option?

“Then this board is going to be put in a situation where you’re going to have to consider that the constituents have spoken, but you are the elected body to make that decision and you have been privy to all this information and have studied this in great detail over the last year and a half. When something happens with the buildings, ultimately the board has to do what it needs to do,” Suski said.

Kunkel, Fink need renovations

Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates and DecisionInsite told Suski that the district has grown faster over the last three years compared to the five that proceeded it.

DecisionInsite’s study says about 536 new homes will be constructed within the district — a majority of them in Woodland Hills. That could bring in a conservative estimate of 301 new students into the district by 2028.

Woodland Hills is to be developed over 10 phases and  eventually include 440 housing units — 150 apartments, 125 townhouses, 119 single-family detached homes, and 46 duplexes, according to plans submitted to Middletown borough. It is located off North Union Street across the road from the high school, middle school and Reid.

“So, do we believe that depending on the grade level that those students can be absorbed into our buildings? Yes, but we also know that we have parents who believe that class sizes in some locations are a little high,” Suski said.

Some teachers, during discussions about changes to the Middletown Area Middle School schedule, said they felt 28 to 30 students in a creative arts class is high, Suski said.

In an email, Suski explained that the enrollment at each of the elementary schools is projected to peak in different years, and the students could be temporarily relocated from one school to another to balance the enrollment during peak times. That’s how the district currently handles overcrowding in a grade, she said.

The reason the district started these discussions is because Kunkel needed renovations to its mechanical system, she told the school board.

According to an October presentation to the school board, renovations at Kunkel could range from $11.5 to $12.4 million and at Fink renovations could be $8 million to $8.6 million.

“The reason [Crabtree] put the different options out there is so that you can say, ‘Well, if I’m going to spend X million dollars to renovate these two buildings, for a little bit more millions dollars, I can build one new building instead of having two that I’m piecemealing to get them to where they need to be,’” Suski said.