Fu­ture of South El­e­men­tary de­bated af­ter dis­cov­ery of mold

The Phoenix - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @PottstownNews on Twit­ter

The dis­cov­ery of mold spores in fifth-grade class­rooms in South El­e­men­tary School this sum­mer has evolved into a dis­cus­sion about the fu­ture of the 63-year-old school.

A district-wide meet­ing held Mon­day in the high school au­di­to­rium fea­tured a look at op­tions that in­clude ev­ery­thing from mak­ing re­pairs to the school; to clos­ing it and build­ing a new one; re­dis­trict­ing South’s stu­dents among the other three el­e­men­tary schools; to trans­form­ing the district’s two mid­dle schools into 5-6 and 7-8 grade cen­ters.

The three-hour meet­ing at­tracted more than 100 peo­ple and pro­vided a fo­rum for com­ments about the var­i­ous op­tions be­ing con­sid­ered by the district. A livestream video of the meet­ing is avail­able on the Perkiomen Val­ley Schools Face­book page.

Although the re­pairs re­quired to re­duce the mold spore count have

been largely dealt with, the is­sue has sparked a broader dis­cus­sion about the cost of mak­ing fur­ther re­pairs to win­dows, doors, car­pet and tile and whether other op­tions present a bet­ter use of tax­pay­ers dol­lars and would be bet­ter for stu­dents and staff.

“It’s our old­est build­ing and in terms of fa­cil­i­ties and ac­com­mo­da­tions, it is not as sim­i­lar to our other el­e­men­tary schools as we might like, and we want all our stu­dents to have an eq­ui­table ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Jes­sica Lester, the district’s man­ager of school and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment.

Cur­rently, Perkiomen Val­ley has four el­e­men­tary schools. Other than South, they are Skippack, which opened in 1998, Ever­green, which opened in 1996, and Schwenksville, which opened in 2003.

Ac­cord­ing to the fa­cil­ity review used at Mon­day night’s meet­ing, en­roll­ments at the el­e­men­tary schools have been de­clin­ing since the 2011-2012 school year, and Mont­gomery County Planning Com­mis­sion projects pre­dict fur­ther de­clines in en­roll­ment.

“In the 1990s, Perkiomen Val­ley was the secod or third fastest grow­ing school dis­tricts in the state,” Su­per­in­ten­dent Bar­bara Rus­sell told the crowd. “En­roll­ment was grow­ing so dra­mat­i­cally, the district was build­ing. Now we’re start­ing to see it slow down,” she said adding that most mod­els “are pre­dict­ing that down­ward trend.”

“With the ex­ces­sive rain we’ve had you can see where the leaks are and we need to think about what hap­pens at South and the safety of our stu­dents,” said Rus­sell.

So the district has be­gun to look at a broad range of op­tions.

Is­sues at South in­clude leak­ing win­dows and doors, 20-year-old car­pet, which is a haven for mold spores, and as­bestos tiles un­der­neath the car­pet. These and other re­pairs would cost ap­prox­i­mately $2.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Con­struct­ing a new school would cost ap­prox­i­mately $25 mil­lion and re­quire a tax hike of just un­der 2 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the re­port and would re­quire a waiver from the state for the min­i­mal acreage now re­quired for an el­e­men­tary school, said Rus­sell.

An­other op­tion ex­am­ined was to close South and shift the stu­dents to the three re­main­ing el­e­men­tary schools. The prob­lem with that op­tion is there is a to­tal ca­pac­ity among those schools of 461 stu­dents and South has 534 to shift, mak­ing it “in­fea­si­ble,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Or, the district could shift the stu­dents and build a 10-class­room ad­di­tion to Schwenksville El­e­men­tary, at a cost of about $5.6 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“Any re­dis­trict­ing will be chal­leng­ing,” said Rus­sell. “Things would be crowded for a pe­riod of time and we would be push­ing up against the max­i­mum num­ber for kids in a class­room.”

She said the district’s pol­icy calls for a range of 18 to 21 stu­dents per class from grades K through sec­ond; up to 24 for grades sec­ond through fourth; up to 26 for fifth grade and 30 for mid­dle school stu­dents.

An­other op­tion would be to shift all fifth grade stu­dents to the district’s two mid­dle schools, mak­ing them grades 5 through 8, close South and trans­form the re­main­ing three el­e­men­tary schools to grades K-4.

And lastly, the district is also look­ing at shift­ing all fifth- and sixth-grade stu­dents to Perkiomen Val­ley Mid­dle School West; all grades 7 and 8 to Perkiomen Val­ley Mid­dle School East and Ever­green, Skippack and Schwenksville el­e­men­tary schools would all house grades K-4.

At the mid­dle schools, “things would be tight for two years,” said Rus­sell, ex­plain­ing that af­ter that, pro­jec­tions show en­roll­ments de­creas­ing so class sizes would drop.

“We’re just try­ing to present you all with the full scope of pos­si­bil­i­ties,” she said.

Most re­dis­trict­ing would add about $315,000 a year to the bud­get in ad­di­tional bus­ing costs, said Rus­sell.

Speak­ers at Mon­day’s meet­ing had a va­ri­ety of re­ac­tions to the pro­pos­als, and sev­eral spoke in fa­vor of keep­ing and re­pair­ing South and at least one of whom thanked Rus­sell for hold­ing the meet­ing, which he de­scribed as “step­ping into the lion’s den.”

“I don’t care about dol­lar signs, I care about the fu­ture of my kids,” said one par­ent to ap­plause from the crowd.

“We should not squeeze every inch out of every school and have our teach­ers lose their jobs, we have to think about our kids,” said an­other speaker.

“If you look at the School Per­for­mance Pro­file scores from 2013 for­ward, you will see that South is the sec­ond best per­form­ing school in the district on av­er­age,” said one par­ent, adding that any­thing other than pre­serv­ing the school will “dis­man­tle that learn­ing com­mu­nity. Does that make sense from a per­for­mance stand-point is my ques­tion?”

“We’re try­ing to look at this from all dif­fer­ent an­gles,” Rus­sell replied. “And we are not dis­miss­ing the points you just made.”

An­other par­ent ar­gued that her re­search shows “smaller, un­con­sol­i­dated schools al­ways per­form bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally” adding that “par­ents get lost in larger schools” and are less in­volved.

“You can find data to sup­port what­ever you want,” said an­other speaker, adding that the district must con­sider that chang­ing grade ar­range­ments in the schools may re­quire teach­ers to get new cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for which they will have to pay.

“The best bang for your buck is to fix South,” said one par­ent.

“I think there is so much emo­tion be­cause the com­mu­nity iden­ti­fies with its el­e­men­tary school,” said one par­ent, not­ing that South is a sell­ing point for those look­ing to buy in the Col­legeville and Trappe area.

Rus­sell stressed that “no de­ci­sions have been made” and said the pur­pose of the meet­ing was to gather in­put from the com­mu­nity.

PHOTO FROM PERKIOMEN VAL­LEY SCHOOL DISTRICT WEB PAGE

South El­e­men­tary School was built in 1955. Of­fi­cials say the build­ing needs $2.5 mil­lion in re­pairs.

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