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School District Inviting Public Input as Elementary School Planning Develops

by on May 31, 2016 4:04 PM

As State College Area School District begins an accelerated district-wide facilities master plan (DWFMP), the public has the opportunity to give input on the future of several elementary schools.

The plan is focused on potential renovation or construction at Corl Street, Houserville and Radio Park elementary schools, as well as determining if Lemont Elementary should be consolidated with Houserville, an option that’s been considered since 1999.

Meetings for the public to offer input are scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Radio Park Elementary, 7 p.m. Wednesday at Houserville Elementary and June 16 at Mount Nittany Middle School. The first meeting was held last week at Corl Street.

“We’ve been really speeding things along since the beginning of May,” said Randy Brown, district business administrator. “We wanted to make sure the community in general as well as our district community understood what we were doing, why we were doing it, and giving them some opportunity to learn and provide input before the summer starts.”

Each of the schools under consideration date back to the 1950s or earlier and have not undergone renovation since the 1960s while other elementary schools in the district have.

Planning initially was not expected to begin until December. However, with opportunities to offset expected cost arising this spring, the district and school board agreed to accelerate planning. The district has applied for a Department of Community and Economic Development grant for up to $2 million each for two elementary school projects. Houserville and Radio Park were identified in the application as potential projects because they would cost the most to update and would receive the greatest benefit from the grants, though the district is not bound to those specific projects if other needs are identified. The funds are contingent on significant construction progress by June 2018, necessitating the accelerated planning.

The district also will receive $2.2 million to $2.4 million in state reimbursement for two projects and possible additional funds for remaining projects through the state’s PlanCon. PlanCon funding --  the Pennsylvania Department of Education's process for school construction reimbursement -- is contingent on construction beginning by 2019. The state is enacting a moratorium on PlanCon reimbursements for new projects, and to be eligible for future funding the district was required to submit its PlanCon Parts A and B by May 15.

The total project costs for the elementary schools were estimated at $40 million -- not including potential grant and reimbursement money. Brown explained the estimate is on the high end and likely to change, but that a higher estimate was needed to ensure the district could receive the maximum amount from the state. He said current plans would use the state funding to reduce costs, rather than adding additional expenses.

This summer architect Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates, working in conjunction with Massaro Construction Management Services, is guiding a demographic analysis while working with administrators to receive public input. Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates and Massaro are the same team that has led the State High project.

Brown recognized that parents and residents have strong attachments to and reasons for wanting to keep each of their schools where they are. Corl Street’s future is uncertain, with lower enrollment than most elementary schools and a smaller footprint on which to build.

Because of that, repurposing of Corl Street Elementary and moving students to other schools is a possibility.

“The Corl Street discussion was a little bit sensitive, but everyone was cordial and respectful,” Brown said. “There was learning on both sides. The problem with the Corl site, it is very site-restricted. It has code and zoning requirements that need to be met. The question has been asked could it become a larger school so that it could become more efficient to run, comparable in size to the other [elementary school] buildings. We’re looking at that. We’re working very closely with the borough and the architects and site designers will be looking at that as well. But it’s also in discussion for repurposing and that would mean attendance area shifts.”

Moving students from Corl Street to other schools could have a ripple effect in which students at other schools might have to be moved. He said the demographic study will help inform those decisions.

The district currently operates with the assumption that 400 students is the right capacity for an elementary school. Corl Street enrolls 250.

"But there’s going to be a re-evaluation during this process if that’s the right number,” Brown said. “And if it is the right number how do we get Corl Street from 250 to closer to 400.”

Brown said Corl Street families feel the school is a part of a close-knit community -- about 50 percent of students there walk to school, more than any other in the district. He also noted that residents expressed concerns about loss of the school making Holmes-Foster and Greentree less of a family neighborhood, though he explained the borough has restrictions in place that would limit the addition of student housing. A concern for the district -- which has seen decreased enrollment over time due to lower birth rates and the addition of charter schools -- is that since the Young Scholars charter school is in the Corl Street attendance area, more parents may choose to send their children there if Corl Street were to close.

“One of the things we’ll look at is could that attendance area broaden and how big could a new school be on that site,” Brown said. “There are restrictions. It’s a very small site. You can only fill so much of the square footage on the site with building. You can only go so high with a building on that site. We will ask those questions. We’ve already contacted the borough about being prepared for that, and they are ready with all of the possibilities and restrictions. We’ll work with our site planner when we’re to that point.”

Radio Park, Brown said, is likely to remain at its current site with renovations or reconstructions, since the district does not own other real estate in that attendance area and the cost of real estate in that area is high.

Community input and demographic analysis will be key in determining whether Lemont is merged with Houserville to create a single K-5 school. In that instance, Lemont Elementary would be repurposed.

“It’s a little bit sensitive with community members, but from what we understand, parents and faculty and staff are excited about the opportunity, so they have one building for their school -- because they consider themselves one school in two buildings,” Brown said. “They share a lot of things anyway, so they’re excited to be under one roof.”

Architects have been talking with faculty and staff at other schools in the district that have been renovated recently to understand what worked well and what could be improved. Brown added that some of the same methods of gaining input for the State High project are being or will be implemented for the elementary school projects.

Should Lemont and/or Corl Street be repurposed, the district does not yet have a plan for what would be done with them.

“What we’re trying to do for the immediate six-month window right now is what are the appropriate projects to do and where does that leave us with repurposing?” Brown said. “Once we get those projects going then we’ll start looking at possibilities.”

The district is expecting to to have a demographic analysis in August. Additional public meetings will be held in July and August for further discussion before a proposal is presented in September.

Construction could begin as soon as the summer of 2017 and take place over about 16 months. Construction would be phased so that students and staff are separated from construction work.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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