Future of South Elementary debated after discovery of mold
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.
South Elementary School was built in 1955. Officials say the building needs $2.5 million in repairs.