York Suburban board balks at pricey growth plan

York Suburban Senior High School in Spring Garden Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York Suburban School District officials are considering several building projects to address growing enrollment, but board members aren't sold on the price tag.

The board was not satisfied with five options presented from a feasibility study, which ranged in cost from about $37.1 million to $90.2 million based on conservative estimates.

The administration presented a conceptual framework in response, including several renovations, an addition, a school closure and conversion of an elementary school into a middle school for a total between about $58.3 million and $69.4 million.  

But some board members were hesitant to take on extra debt in the district for building projects.

“Buildings don’t make our kids better — teachers do,” board member Michael Thoman said. He said funding should be looked at in terms of additional faculty needed to support optimal class sizes.

Board member James Sanders agreed that faculty was a much better use of taxpayer money.

"These shiny new buildings that we see popping up all around — go ask the taxpayers in those areas how much they like their tax increases right now versus what they're paying from an educational standpoint," he said.

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Superintendent Timothy Williams said some of the framework would minimize the number of needed teachers — such as putting one grade on the same campus — but the district would still need about 24 new teachers within the next five years to keep class sizes from increasing. 

York Suburban School District Superintendent Dr. Timothy Williams.  John A. Pavoncello photo

"It’s a bitter pill, but we've got to do it," said board Vice President Lois Ann Schroeder.

Williams and board members also disagreed over the need for smaller class sizes.

"(Classes with 25-30 students) were the class size guidelines back in the '50s, and it worked," said board treasurer Joel Sears.

Thoman said success with larger classes depends on student performance level, and Williams added that the bulk of literature says class size doesn't matter relative to student achievement. 

 Staff levels can be adjusted much more easily than a building, Thoman said.

“Nothing would be more embarrassing than to borrow $40 million dollars and have K-3 enrollment drop,” for example, said board President John Posenau.

Several members supported the administration’s idea to cluster all classes of the same grade, but Sanders emphasized doing it in a way that would not take away from education.

Williams reasoned that consolidation would create better educational opportunities, with more consistency in curriculum and ability of teachers to collaborate, but he questioned the ability to do it without any additions.  

Director of Elementary Education Tawn Ketterman said as buildings stand now, to consolidate would mean trying to fit two grades into a place holding a grade and a half.

As school populations are in flux, it might be more beneficial not to construct a new building that might or might not serve that population, Sears said.

Spring Garden Township resident Kimberly Stambaugh cautioned officials against using the wrong enrollment projections, as she's seen an example of districts not utilizing space. 

Board members agreed that the administration should run financials for all of the options, with a primary focus on personnel costs.

Schroeder requested that factors such as bus routes be considered in those costs, adding that it would be good to get community input on those decisions.

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"Culturally, York Suburban has been the smaller community school district," and some families are not looking for long commutes, she said.

Laura Klinedinst, a neighbor of Stambaugh's, said there is a need for more communication on these issues. Though the facilities study has been in discussion since February, some of her neighbors were unaware because they don’t have children in the district and don’t keep up with the district's web presence.

"I don’t want to wait too long before we start to get input from the public," said board member Ellen Freireich.

Administrators plan to bring back updated recommendations at the next finance meeting in September.