Mechanicsburg Area School Board could take another vote March 14 on a proposal to reconfigure its elementary school grade levels, Superintendent Mark Leidy said last week.
A tie vote Feb. 14 prompted district administrators to take a “piece-by-piece” approach to enacting an overall plan to facilitate enrollment growth and keep the education program current. The board voted 4-4 on the proposal to reconfigure the grade structure starting in 2018-2019. The tie vote was because one member of the nine-member board was absent.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 28, Leidy asked board members to consider as separate issues the grade reconfiguration, changes in secondary/extra-curricularprograms and the proposed renovation and expansion of the Kindergarten Academy on Filbert Street.
The initial vote looked at the recommendations from a 2016 feasibility study as an overall package not as separate components.
“It was a strategic mistake on my part,” Leidy wrote in a March 2 email to The Sentinel.
“Initially, from my perspective, it made the most sense to present the recommendations of the facility study committee to the Board of School Directors as one package,” Leidy wrote. “Approval of the recommendations would set the direction of the district for the next several years. In retrospect, the complexity and scope of those recommendations was more than several members of the board was willing to accept.”
On Feb. 28, Leidy said the most urgent part of the plan is the addition of classroom space at the Kindergarten Academy which is running at 106-percent capacity.
“The academy library is in the hallway of a modular unit and students receive special instruction in the same areas,” Leidy said. “We need more classroom space as soon as possible.”
That said, Leidy asked the board on Feb. 28 for its consensus to have the architectural firm of Crabtree Rohrbaugh & Associates begin the design work on modifications to the academy.
Crabtree Rohrbaugh was the firm the board hired to do the feasibility study. The board then formed an 18-member committee of principals, teachers, administrators, parents and school board members to review the recommendations outlined in the study and to report back their findings.
“We are hoping for a vote on the elementary grade level configuration at the March 14 meeting,” Leidy said. “Ideally we need an answer as soon as possible.”
The board authorized the feasibility study in June 2015 in response to growing enrollment, which numbered 4,023 students this year — a jump of nearly 330 students since 2005-2006 and nearly 170 since 2015-2016. District enrollment is expected to reach 4,143 students by 2025, according to projections.
“We have known for several years our increasing enrollment and the existing space in our facilities was creating a capacity issue,” Leidy told The Sentinel. “Four of the six elementary buildings have modular classrooms which have been reactions to our growing enrollment.
“The enrollment growth is most significant at the elementary level,” Leidy said. “We have exceeded our target class size in kindergarten because there is no more space in the building for additional classes. Our class targets are 23 [students] in [grades] K-2 and 28 in 3rd to 5th grade.”
Aside from the Kindergarten Academy, the Upper Allen Elementary School is running at 102-percent capacity. In fact, the greatest amount of growth in the district is expected in the Upper Allen Elementary School attendance area, which saw 1,450 housing permits issued and new dwellings come online during 2015-2016 thanks to development at Winding Hills.
While the academy and Upper Allen buildings are over capacity, the remaining elementary schools, the high school and middle school are beneath full capacity. However, there is a push to renovate those buildings because they’re not fully adapted to the needs of 21st century teaching practices.
There is a balancing act whenever school districts weigh student enrollment, building capacity and program needs against the long-term costs of building projects to taxpayers.
“We base the need to build on projections in enrollment and educational program needs,” Leidy said. “Projecting enrollment is not an exact science given the fact that any household may enroll a different number of children than predicted. Components of the economy such as housing and job markets all play a role in predicting what needs to be built.”
If school districts overbuild, they end up with empty building space. If they under-build, it can cost additional money to bring back contractors to address a capacity shortfall.
“You often hear frustrations from those in the community when it appears a district has under-built,” Leidy said. “But the impact on the taxpayer must be considered with all expenditures, especially with the cost of construction.”
For Mechanicsburg, a decision on the elementary grade reconfiguration proposal is a key for the district to move forward.
“Our goal is to begin the process by adding additional classroom space at the elementary level,” Leidy said. “How we do that is yet to be determined. We need to add additional classroom space as soon as possible. Most scenarios require us to do renovations and additions on several buildings. This will take many years to accomplish.”
The feasibility study review committee recommended the Kindergarten Academy configuration remain the same while district students in grades 1-3 would be spread out between the Broad Street, Northside and Upper Allen elementary schools.
Very preliminary cost estimates from August 2016 have modifications to the schools costing the district $10.6 million for the Broad Street building, $12.4 million for Northside and $11.5 million for Upper Allen, Leidy said.
Under the reconfiguration proposal, all students in grades 4 and 5 would attend Elmwood Elementary School while the district offices will be relocated from the second floor of the Elmwood building to the Shepherdstown Elementary School building.
The conversion of Elmwood from a grade 1-5 school to a grade 4-5 academy could cost about $4.5 million while the conversion of the Shepherdstown building from a school to an administrative center would cost $5.7 million.
“Cost estimates are contingent upon the scope of each project as determined and approved by the school board,” Leidy told The Sentinel. “The construction schedule would need to be finalized working with the architect.”
A key issue still undecided is how relocated students will be transported. Prior to the Feb. 14 vote, school board members heard from local residents concerned about how the changes could affect their children. Board Vice President John Rupp said in February that he struggles with making any decision on reconfiguration before information is known about transportation.
In response, Leidy said a transportation study determining the best and most efficient bus routes would be part of the district reconfiguration. But it was implied the board needed to commit to the reconfiguration plan before staff could seek out a transportation consultant.
The board had previously decided to relocate all kindergarten students to the academy on Filbert Street before all the transportation arrangements were fully in place, Board President Dawn Merris said in February. “That’s not a reason to stop moving forward,” she said.
“The mistake I made was in asking the board to consider all the recommendations of the feasibility study in one vote,” Leidy said in email to The Sentinel sent after the Feb. 28 meeting.
“The committee chose to make a recommendation about grade level configuration first because the education of our students is our primary reason for existing as an institution,” Leidy added. “Additionally, there is an ongoing desire to address the transportation issue for the entire district K-12. We need to know the configuration of our buildings in order to address those transportation concerns.”
5 buildings for all
An attendance area is the territory where each building draws its enrollment. Under the reconfiguration proposal, there will be one attendance area (the whole school district) for the Kindergarten Academy, the grade 4-5 academy, the middle school and the high school, but three attendance areas (Broad Street, Northside and Upper Allen) for grades 1-3.
Under the current grade configuration, over 40 percent of Mechanicsburg school district students transition through five buildings over the course of their public education career. Students in the current Shepherdstown and Upper Allen attendance area begin at the Kindergarten Academy, attend Shepherdstown Elementary School for the first and second grade, then proceed to Upper Allen before going over to the middle school and high school buildings.
If the reconfiguration is approved, every Mechanicsburg school district student will transition through five buildings. This would change the four-building set-up currently in place for students outside the Shepherdstown and Upper Allen attendance areas.
The Sentinel asked Leidy to explain the benefits of switching the district elementary grade configuration to the K/1-3/4-5 that is now being proposed.
“We have found tremendous success with our entire kindergarten program being in one school,” Leidy said. “The equity of the program options for students, opportunities for collaboration between staff and the distribution of resources are just a few of the reasons why having all our students in a grade level gathered in one building is a positive.”
None of the building project options that were recommended by the review committee called for the construction of new school buildings. Instead, the emphasis was on how to improve each existing building through additions and renovations so that it could accommodate growth in enrollment but also focus on 21st century education adaptations.
“You’re already doing 21st century learning in your district, but you need more open spaces and more spaces for technology,” Tracy Rohrbaugh, director of interior design for Crabtree Rohrbaugh, told school board members in April 2016.