Updated 12:30 p.m. to add additional information about capacity projections.
About 30 residents attended a special Lower Merion Board of School Directors meeting on Monday night, at which Director of Operations Pat Guinnane and Superintendent Christopher McGinley presented updated plans for a proposed $29.4 million expansion for district schools. The most notable changes were scaled down plans for a Welsh Valley Middle School expansion and the suggestion that St. Justin Martyr Church be used for temporary classrooms in the coming school year.
Guinnane also told the board that the original timelines for the $29.4 million expansion for district schools were "unrealistic," and presented a new timeline for construction at each of the four schools to be expanded. The original timelines, Guinnane said, hadn't allowed enough time for board deliberation, nor had they fully mapped the details of the township's land development process.
Despite slowing down, some parts of the process continue to move briskly. On Dec. 17, the district will seek the Board of School Directors' approval to submit a tentative sketch plan to Lower Merion Township for the construction of temporary modular classrooms at Gladwyne Elementary.
The quick timeframe for the Gladwyne decision is to ensure that township approvals are in place to construct the modular classrooms in time for the 2013-14 school year, Guinnane said.
Approvals for three other schools to be expanded—Penn Valley Elementary School, Welsh Valley Middle School and Bala Cynwyd Middle School—will be sought Jan. 28, The short-term plans for these three schools, all of which have immediate needs for more classroom space, will not require township approval, Guinnane said.
The 2013-14 School Year
Guinnane and McGinley described plans for the upcoming school year at each of the four schools.
Gladwyne Elementary School: Modular classrooms are the necessary and temporary solution, with Gladwyne already “very, very full,” McGinley said. The district will seek board approval Monday night to submit the tentative sketch plan for Gladwyne to the township. The modular units require township approval, and while the district could end up changing the plan for Gladwyne, the goal is to get a sketch plan submitted so a waiver request for modular classrooms can quickly follow.
Bala Cynwyd Middle School: Guinnane recommended decoupling the interior modifications needed at Bala Cynwyd MS for the 2013-14 school year from later exterior modifications. “The more immediate need is for classrooms,” he said, noting that any exterior modifications will require township approval. Interior modifications, which include converting one of two locker rooms into classroom spaces, can be completed in time for the start of the 2013-14 school year.
Penn Valley Elementary School: Most of the conversions needed at Penn Valley are already done, with one teacher workroom still to be converted.
Welsh Valley Middle School: The solution for immediately needed classroom space at Welsh Valley—at least two classrooms by September—is not yet decided. Guinnane suggested temporary use of the St. Justin Martyr Church building, bought by the district for $2.5 million this summer, to provide classroom space for four interdisciplinary classrooms.
The district is still unsure of its eventual plans for the church and its land, so renovating the church for use would involve “the absolute minimum required to put [this building] to use”—sprinklers on the upper level, ADA modifications such as adding wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and making a doorway wider. No partitions would be added and the area would remain largely open for the interdisciplinary students to interact.
The conceptual cost estimate is $628,408, Guinnane said. It requires a building permit from the township, Guinnane said, but no land development, and the project could be completed by September 2013.
Longterm Plans for District Schools
Welsh Valley Middle School: The original plan for Welsh Valley called for 16 additional classrooms to be constructed, but that plan has been downsized to 12, resulting in a $1.4 million estimated savings, Guinnane said.
The highest enrollment predicted at Welsh Valley is 1,148 students, but the maximum capacity of the school, with the 12-classroom expansion, caps out at 1,020 students, Guinnane said. However, McGinley said there would still be some flexible space with 12 classrooms, in response to a concern voiced by board member Diane DiBonaventuro: due to the way capacity is determined, it's "not an exact science," he added.
The Welsh Valley plan still includes renovating the administration area and creating a secure vestibule, as well adding at least some fencing to the property. In response to a later public comment, McGinley said he would not recommend to the board any plan for Welsh Valley that didn’t improve the security of the campus.
The Welsh Valley project also has other school upgrades built in, so the cost of the project is much less than $16 million if that work is decoupled, McGinley said.
However, some of the upgrades are ones that will be needed eventually: the middle school currently has the original 1957 HVAC system, for example. It’s “at the end of its useful life,” Guinnane said. The cost to upgrade the system is estimated at $5.6 million, a "conservative estimate." Could the system last a few more years? Probably, but there's always the chance it could break, Guinnane said. Without the upgrade, window AC units could be used in the school. “It wouldn’t be as efficient, but it could be done,” Guinnane said. The Welsh Valley plan would also probably not be a PlanCon reimburseable plan without the HVAC upgrades, Guinnane said.
McGinley identified some other non-ideal situations at Welsh Valley as well, such as a lack of privacy in the nurse's office and the fact that students in gifted classes need to walk through the gym to get to their classes.
"If you're a learning support teacher, you should be able to bring kids into your space and work with them, McGinley said. "So there are some places where we have compromised over a few years, and in some cases many years, that we’d like to correct in the interest of the quality of our program."
High schools: No plans currently exist to do any work at the high schools. Both are built for about 1,200 students but could accommodate up to 1,400, Guinnane said. The peak enrollment projections place Harriton at 1,628 and LMHS at 1,574 by 2020-21, but McGinley said between the LMHS building and the district administration office, up to 1,800 students could be accommodated at LMHS.
There are about 16-18 classrooms in the district administration office (the old high school), but they require upgrades, including a new HVAC system, Guinnane said. Also, if capacity at LMHS were to grow to that level, at least two more science labs would likely need to be added at the administration building. (Other classrooms can more easily morph from one subject to another, but science labs require specific equipment, making new classrooms necessary if enrollment rises to higher levels.)
Other Points of Discussion
Modular classrooms: Administration and board members were divided on the use of modular classrooms for solutions to expansion problems. McGinley suggested that paying for modular classrooms as an alternative to school additions could be a poor use of funds—if enrollment projections do hold true and the expansions are eventually needed anyway. Modular classrooms are also more maintenance-intensive, Guinnane said.
Board member Diane DiBonaventuro questioned the renovation of St. Justin Martyr Church for temporary use, suggesting that instead of putting money into a building the district isn't sure it's keeping, the district consider using four modular classrooms.
The advantage of using the church, Guinnane said, is that it requires no land development plan and will be ready in time for the 2013-14 school year. Using modular classrooms instead would require land development approvals, but such an option hasn’t been fully pursued.
School boundaries: In response to questions of changing school boundary lines and what effect that would have on enrollment at various schools, the district doesn't have "the internal expertise" to conduct that analysis, and a consultant would be required, McGinley said. No plan for redrawing school boundaries has been brought forth to the public.
How capacity is calculated: In elementary schools, capacity is calculated based on classroom size alone. In middle school and high schools, capacity is calculated using classrooms, science rooms and team rooms, but not using art rooms, chorus, band and other rooms that could house students. Factoring in these additional rooms makes the administration confident that there will be adequate space in the district's middle schools despite peak enrollment projections that are higher than the middle schools' estimated capacities after expansion.
On the other hand, some schools that still have space according to their capacity are completely full functionally: Gladwyne's capacity is 694, but the school is, by all accounts, bursting at the seams—despite having 679 students enrolled.
Part of the disparity here is that the capacity calculation factors in classroom vacancies: in Belmont Hills, there are 44 "empty seats" across the elementary school—six in one grade, four in another—all of which are reflected in its total capacity number, McGinley said.
The biggest factor in figuring out capacity calculations are the federal laws and space required for special education programming. "The hardest thing to figure out," McGinley said, "is what chunk of the school is utilized for special education and therefore not available for the capacity number."
At Belmont Hills, for example, the capacity included a classroom for 20-25 kids, and the school decided to use it as an additional autistic support classroom. Despite not growing the student population by 20-25 students, such a use reduced the school's capacity estimate by that much.
The capacity numbers also include the fact that the district has half-day kindergarten. There are three kindergarten classes at Belmont Hills right now, using two classrooms, with room for another class of 20 kindergarten students in the afternoon. Those 20 spots are reflected as available space in Belmont Hills' capacity estimate—but they're only available for a half day, McGinley said.
Capacity, then, is not as simple as looking at the number of classrooms and seats in those classrooms, particularly given a number of one-on-one services like therapists who come and go, McGinley said.
"There is a functional capacity of the building, but it is very much changed by the number of programs and services [we offer]," he said.
Feedback from Residents
Regina Brown, of Ardmore, described the district's handling of expansions and closures as a "boom bust cycle." The cycles "are expensive and they create a lot of difficulties and contentions. I would encourage thinking about capacity differently than 'we have to build, we have to close,'" she added. Brown encouraged the board to look at creative ways to address space issues, such as putting all district kindergarten students in the district administration building.
Plus, following the school's recent expensive and controversial redistricting process, Brown said, anything that does not lead to an equal population at both Lower Merion High School and Harriton High School "should be rejected outright."
“I think there's a reason why land development is so difficult—it's because it should be a thoughtful process,” said Kate Galer, of Ardmore. “I’m perfectly fine with it being a longer, more thoughtful process if it means we can be more holistic in our thinking—especially with the Welsh Valley property and the St. Justin's. It seems like you’re putting out fires there: until you decide what you're going to do with Saint Justin's it seems like the Welsh Valley property shouldn't be developed as thoroughly as the plan is. ... I think it could be used very purposely and very well if there was an overall master plan for the site.”
Chuck Scott, of Penn Wynne, agreed with Galer, adding that “putting out fires” in Gladwyne and Penn Valley will compound problems at Welsh Valley and Harriton High School, which all of the previous schools feed into. Scott suggested looking at creative solutions, and adding capacity in an intelligent way, preferably in the Lower Merion High School feeder because of the extra capacity at the district administration building.
“I hate to be the cheapo here,” said Francie McComb, “but … I want to see the board come up with a proposal of what is the least you can do in terms of spending money,” given that most township taxpayers seem to have “building fatigue.” McComb said she doesn't think the district should be fixing things that work 'okay,' but instead asking "What can we get by with?"
"Hire the consultant, look at the numbers again, and do what minimum you need to do ... I think this plan is too much,” she said.
For the following construction projects, a board decision is needed by Jan. 28, Guinnane said:
- Gladwyne's permanent addition (Construction: September 2013 to June 2014)
- Penn Valley's permanent addition: (Construction: September 2013 to April 2014)
- Interior modifications at Bala Cynwyd MS (Construction: Summer 2013)
- Exterior modifications to Bala Cynwyd MS (Construction: Summer 2014)
- Welsh Valley permanent additions and renovations (Construction: November 2013 - December 2014)
- Welsh Valley additions for temporary classrooms (Construction: Summer 2013)
All timelines are flexible so long as students have a place to learn in September, McGinley said.
Guinnane said he will look into four questions raised by the board:
- The functional capacity of each elementary school with a better explanation for how the extra space is allocated
- The cost and feasibility of a one-story addition at Gladwyne rather than a second-story addition
- The cost over time of using the district administration building for extra classroom space
- The cost and feasibility of using four modular units at Welsh Valley in 2013-14.
What do you think about the district's updated plans and timelines? Tell us in the comments.