When: Elizabethtown Area school board forum, June 29, held virtually with no public comment.
What happened: The board gathered to discuss the possibility of closing two elementary schools — Rheems and Mill Road — and consolidating kindergarten through second grade into East High Street and Bainbridge elementary schools. Nearly 450 people — parents and school district employees — attended and weighed in with questions and concerns prior to the meeting through ThoughtExchange, the district’s online discussion management tool. Seven of the nine board members took part in the forum (Menno Riggleman and Karen Sweigart were absent) along with district administrators. Based on the discussion, the prevailing sentiment appeared to favor closure and consolidation, with the impetus being financial concerns, namely balancing costly renovations to aging buildings and their operational costs with providing quality educational programs.
Quotable: "It comes down to capacity and having more capacity than we need, that the costs of those buildings just don't make sense anymore," Craig Hummer, school board member.
Public input: Maintaining small class sizes and adding full-day kindergarten (the district currently offers only half-day kindergarten), were at the top of the list of concerns identified on ThoughtExchange. Other topics ranged from academic concerns and financial implications to traffic and transportation issues and even having adequate space, as was needed for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
District position: The board reviewed a consultant report that projects student enrollment to remain flat through 2030 despite planned housing developments within the district, and it looked at elementary building capacities; starting this school year, there will be 33 unused classrooms. The district has extra capacity resulting from renovation to the lower level of the middle school to accommodate sixth-graders, who will move there from Bear Creek School this year. Also, third-graders are moving from the elementary buildings to Bear Creek, leaving empty classrooms. Superintendent Michele Balliet recalled that a shift in the district’s four-phase building plan, which originally included renovations to Rheems and Mill Road totaling $28 million, occurred after the board learned of the future debt service and its impact on the district budget. The reaction, she said, was "shock," prompting senior-level administrators to look at other options, which led to the less costly middle school renovation that the board approved in March 2019. Board member Erin Grosh noted that while parents of elementary students may feel shortchanged by these decisions, the students will benefit from the future overhaul of the high school/middle school complex. A "back-of-the-envelope" estimate for that project is between $50 million and $80 million, Balliet noted.
What’s next: No decision was made at the meeting, and the board will continue discussions through the fall, with another forum slated for September. If the board reaches a consensus on closing one or both schools, a vote on closure would happen at the Oct. 26 meeting, after which a legally required public hearing will be held in November, with a final vote 90 days later, which would be Feb. 22.
Next meeting: The school board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10.