Tom Hylton’s $12-15 Million Dollar School Solution

Pottstown Neighborhood Schools Committee Meeting

Pottstown Administration Building

March 1, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

The meeting was called to order by Thomas Hylton.  Committee/Board members Nat White and Rich Huss were in attendance.  Valerie Harris was excused as she had an automobile accident earlier that day.  Also in attendance were Dr. Reed D. Lindley, Assistant Superintendent and Dr. Jeffrey Sparagana, Director of Education/Human Resources.

This was a committee meeting regarding the maximization of PSD’S current facilities.

Mr. Hylton explained the ground rules and his presentation began.  He began talking about the 2007 & 2009 elections where the public unseated many board members and made a clear statement that the community wants to retain their five neighborhood elementary schools.  The new members were elected on a pledge to preserve the five elementary schools and renovate them.  They also promised to be fiscally prudent and provide open government.

After the elementary schools were evaluated, it was determined that the roofs are fine and they are structurally sound.  Three of the buildings have good windows but all five school’s mechanical systems have far out-lived their usefulness and need to be replaced.  The modular classrooms are bad and there is a desire to get rid of them.

A bid was put out and Crabtree Rohrbaugh was the low bidder to design the new windows for two elementary schools.  (We are also talking about replacing the heating systems in all elementary buildings with geothermal heating units.)  Federal stimulus money is available and 0% to 1½% interest.  In order to be considered for this money, each district must apply by April 1, 2010.  PSD meets the initial criteria to be considered.

Looking at the big picture, there are 53 teachers for regular education at the high school.  On average they teach three classes per day.  The average class size at the high school is 18 students.  The middle school has an average class size of 21 while the average class size at the elementary level is 24 students.  Mr. Hylton stated this is backwards.  Studies show at the elementary level the class size should be smaller and at the high school level they should be the largest.

The current student population in PSD is 1629 elementary students, 609 middle school students and d 781 high school students.  There are 3019 total students in the district.  Enrollment is projected to rise in the next five years. 

Mr. Hylton then talked about the number of classrooms, including modular and the number of regular classrooms vs. special education classrooms.  Many of the special education classrooms are only used part of the day (25).  While only three special education classrooms are used full time.

We then talked about school capacity.  The middle school has a capacity of 1066 students.  90% would be 959 which is considered the functional capacity.  Currently there are only 609 students in that building.  The high school has a capacity of 1185 students and a functional capacity of 1067 students.  The VoTech has a capacity of 346 students bringing the total capacity to 1413 students at the high school.  There are 781 students currently enrolled at Pottstown High School.

The obvious conclusion – there is tons of space at the middle and high schools.  The existing elementary schools (except Barth) are at capacity.

Mr. Hylton then went on to discuss the new certification changes that are coming down the road.  In 2013, colleges will be offering PreK – 4, 4 – 8 and 7 – 12 certifications for teachers.

Part of Mr. Hylton’s proposal would be to make the middle school 5 – 8 to free up needed classrooms in the elementary schools, thereby eliminating the modular classrooms.  The proposal would be to make two middle schools of 400 students each in the existing middle school building with some minor modifications.  There are 65 middle schools in Pennsylvania who do the 5 – 8 grade split.  Locally that includes Twin Valley, Conrad Weiser, Norristown and Upper Merion. 

Hylton proposed that the administration offices be moved into the high school, including the annex.  Pottstown has a large amount of administrative space (37,000) for 3100 students.  Reading SD has 30,000 square feet of administrative space for 18,000 students!  He quoted some other examples as well.

Hylton also discussed turning over the PEAK Program (4K) to the PEAK partners and allowing them to run the entire 4K program.  Currently about half the children enrolled are in a partner program, off-site.  Many churches have classroom space available.  It helps them financially and is cheaper for the district to outsource this program so it can be seen as a cost savings.  This would result in staff reductions or reassignment. 

The approximate cost of this proposal, which includes the window replacements in two elementary schools, installing geothermal heating systems in the five elementary schools and reconfiguring the middle and high schools, would cost taxpayers between $12 – $15 million dollars.  We would take out a 15 year bond, using the Federal stimulus low-interest loan, to finance this plan should it be approved.  This is NOT a grant and it would need to be repaid, meaning a tax hike. 

Mr. Hylton then proceeded to talk about the enrollment history of PSD, the integration of minority students within the district, the percentage of minority students in the district and the benefits of walking to school to fight childhood obesity problems.

After Mr. Hylton’s presentation, board member Nat White read a prepared statement in support of Mr. Hylton’s proposal. 

Board member Polly Weand made the suggestion that this proposal needs to be run by the PSD staff.  There should be seminars with teachers, a task force created of administrators, board members and teachers.  Mrs. Weand also stated before spending $12 – $15 million, this plan needs to go to referendum to allow taxpayers a yes or no vote since they will be footing the bill with higher taxes.

Board member Robert Hartman commented at length.  He was unhappy with the proposal and feels that the educational plan should come first and this is not the case with Mr. Hylton’s proposal.  This information was not discussed in open committee meetings and should have been brought to the entire board prior to making this presentation.  Hartman said he worst fears were realized after hearing this proposal.  There is no plan here.  Pottsgrove has a plan vs. Pottstown.  Hartman stated he is embarrassed to be a member of the Pottstown School Board.  He then quickly exited the room after he finished speaking.

The floor was opened up to questions only from the audience of approximately two dozen people.  A woman spoke who is a PSD teacher and asked for clarification of several points in the proposal.  Hylton admitted moving the PEAK program 100% off-site could cause a reduction in PSD staff or they could possibly teach something else, if available.  She had some other questions as well.

There was some lively sparring between Judith Zahora and Mr. Hylton regarding the Sunshine Law, closed-door meetings, open government etc… Where was the committee discussion to get to this point?  Mrs. Zahora also stated she had a problem with using taxpayer money to rent space in churches.  She thinks many taxpayers will feel the same.  If we are projecting a million dollar shortfall next year, how can we afford to borrow more money and pay it back on top of the $34 million that was borrowed to renovate the middle and high schools.  How will we pay this back?  Mr. Hylton replied we don’t have to take the money if we are approved.  We will have to look at the line item budget to see where we can find enough efficiency to fund this bond.

Amy Bathurst-Francis also hammered Mr. Hylton about the lack of “sunshine” in arriving at his proposal.

Phil Thees asked for clarification regarding moving the administration offices in the high school.  Mr. Hylton answered his question.

Dr. Lindley made a plea that we work together and stop the partisan bickering.  We need to come together to work toward a unity of vision for Pottstown School District and Pottstown Borough.  We are at a critical juncture.  This will make or break us!  This met with approval from everyone in attendance. 

Dr. Sparagana echoed Dr. Lindley’s sentiments. 

My opinion is this.  We can’t afford seven schools and we don’t need seven schools.  The two schools with the most room and in the best shape are the middle school and the high school, which are both under utilized.  We can’t afford to fix five schools.  We can’t afford to heap more taxes on the good people of this community.  We already have the 11th highest taxes of any school district in Pennsylvania. 

I come from a district with one elementary school K-6 and one Jr. Sr. High School 7 – 12.  Pottstown can’t afford the luxury of having seven buildings anymore.  The middle and high schools are in great shape after spending $34 million dollars to make them state of the art and they are only at about 55-65% capacity.  Why renovate five more buildings when we are not even fully utilizing the last two buildings we spend a fortune on.

Polly Weand is right.  Form a task force.  Many more people need to be involved in this other than Tom Hylton.

I also would like to say that the two women who talked the entire time Mr. Hylton was making his presentation were exceptionally rude.  It was distracting and annoying.  I think your parents brought you up better than that.  Shame on you.

I was also shocked at Michele Pargeon’s behavior last night.  I understand how frustrated she is with Mr. Hylton.  However, making a scene isn’t helping the situation.  Dr. Lindley was right on the money and civility is necessary.  We can agree to disagree but we have to respect each other.  Leaving the table doesn’t help either.