by Jonathan Weaver
Only one option on the Armstrong School District’s ‘white canvas’ remains, and Board members are circling it multiple times.
By a 7-1 vote, school board directors instructed L.R. Kimball architects to continue plans that would eventually close Kittanning Junior High, Kittanning Senior High and Ford City Jr. – Sr. High and build a new 7-12th grade school.
The school is expected to be open for the 2015-16 school year.
Concerned parents who had questions about the plan watched from the conference room and hallway television monitors. Those concerns were addressed by architects in a nearly-30 minute question-and-answer session before the action was approved.
L.R. Kimball K-12 Market Segment Leader John Hummel said all questions could not be answered right away.
“At this point, we’re very preliminary in the process. The Board will be expected to review and approve more detailed plans for the building at various stages as we move forward,” Hummel said. “Each time you’ll be getting more accurate and detailed information.”
Hummel did say that the new school will be as safe as can be.
“We can’t fight Mother Nature any more than we can fight the price of gas, but we know what state-of-the-art is in terms of compliance and safety. We don’t want to put up a cheap building; we want to put up a building that is almost as permanent as you have gotten a lot of service out of for a century, Hummel said, referring to Ford City Jr. – Sr. High which was built in 1909.
“The intention is to design a high-performance building, a sustainable building,” Hummel continued.
The estimated-$55.6 million school building will be designed to teach a maximum-1,775 students, which was calculated based on current building enrollment, more than 80 secondary students from Kittanning Township and 25 from Rayburn Township.
That cost estimate did not include athletic facilities or land acquisition cost, but Board President Joseph Close reminded attendees that two sites have been offered to the school district at no cost. He said that might help generate more savings to the District.
“Certainly the cost was considered when these options were being reviewed. The operating cost savings was a huge factor,” Close said.
Close estimated a staff savings of $16 million during the next five years and was optimistic there would be energy and maintenance savings as well.
Board Director D. Royce Smeltzer was more concerned with student opportunity and voted ‘no’ on the resolution in large part due to the new school not including all of the Elderton attendance area.
“We have the opportunity to fix the problem that’s been in our district forever. Everyone sitting here is dropping the ball,” Smeltzer said. “I’ll be voting ‘no’ on the resolution.”
Last week, Smeltzer requested preliminary approval from Board members to allow Borough officials in Plumcreek Township, South Bend Township and Elderton Borough to explore different school district options and possibly secede from the Armstrong School District.
A formal motion for that request did not have to be made, according to Solicitor John Smart of Andrews and Price, LLC in Pittsburgh. He said those or other municipalities are always able to explore the possibility if there is community support.
A community meeting at the Towne Hall in Elderton is scheduled for March 21 at 6PM to gather further input.
School Superintendent Stan Chapp repeated that students from the Elderton attendance area or any that would currently attend West Shamokin High would be eligible to transfer to the new school. But not all of them.
“If there were more dollars there, it could’ve been bigger. We want to offer as much opportunity for people to transfer, based on how much money is there,” Chapp said.
Other local residents were also concerned and did not agree with the resolution, including Adam Grafton of Shelocta and Manorville Mayor Todd Gladysiewski.
Grafton said he expected more from the Board directors to brainstorm a method that would treat all students in all municipalities equally.
“The clean whiteboard of ideas to be considered was a charade to lead residents to think that the Board was going to proceed with the best plan available when in-fact the decision to build the new high school had already been made,” Grafton said.
Mayor Todd Gladysiewski of 402 Water Street in Manorville recalled architects referred to Ford City Jr. – Sr. High as a ‘fortress’ and ‘stable’ – even being used as a bomb shelter in World War II – but were not recommending closure. He disagreed.
“I think we’re making a very-bad mistake. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with our schools,” Gladysiewski said. “I personally wouldn’t tear down my house to build a new house if I just had to fix it up a little bit. I hope you guys reconsider.”
He said the news of more job cuts made this year and a low per-capita income County-wide also support his opinion.
Following the meeting, Hummel said he expected the detailed questions from local parents.
“For a high school project – really any project – there are always people that have questions. Generally, the questions are more detail than answers that can be provided at this point, but each time we come back we’ll have more-and-more detail,” Hummel said. “It’s good they have selected an option we can concentrate on – the next big decision will probably be on which site.”
Hummel said the site location will allow architects to be more-detailed in drawings.
L.R. Kimball architects will be back in the area in two weeks when they present the plan to concerned parents during a public meeting March 26 at Lenape Elementary. Board directors will hear input on possibly closing Elderton K-12 and/or Kittanning Township Elementary at that time.
The public meeting is slated to begin at 7PM.