By JULIAN YERGER – Before the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the Indiana Area School District will undergo a major change.
The Indiana Area School Board has approved the rebuilding of the Ben Franklin Elementary School and planning is proceeding at a furious pace. The project calls for the rebuilding Ben Franklin to house 860 students, the renovating of East Pike to house 440 students, and the closing of Eisenhower and Horace Mann. The school board believes this two school layout will have many benefits, but many others in the community think otherwise.
This plan has faced dedicated, grassroots opposition, yet even those involved know they can’t stop it. The only organization capable of doing so was the Borough Planning Commission, and they recently approved the project despite scathing opposition. The planning commission strongly disagreed with the new project but, “If they meet the letter of the law, they will be approved,” said Borough Planning Commission Chairman Robert Begg.
In a November 7 committee meeting, District Superintendent Dale Kirsch explained why the project was necessary. In the new Ben Franklin, the classrooms will be more spacious and there will be increased services for special education students, a STEM dedicated area, increased access for disabled students, increased security, more natural light, improved air quality, and more teacher contact time with the students. The last objective will be achieved through the elimination of wasted time driving between buildings. This issue has affected Art, Library, Music, Physical Education, Technology, English-as-a-Second-Language, Gifted Support, and Guidance Services.
However, in a recent report, the Borough Planning Commission cited several examples of why the neighborhood schools should be retained. “Nearby schools increase the value of housing and anchor neighborhoods with single-family homes. They allow the option of pedestrian access, saving road transportation costs and minimizing congestion… Neighborhood schools also promote socio-economic activity that tends to benefit the type of small business that the borough wishes to protect.”
George Beiger, former elementary teacher, and retired IUP professor said, “Small schools mean better discipline, less adversarial politics, better communication between teachers, higher academic achievement, and better chances for minority and poor students to succeed. The research is pretty overwhelming… Given the research that points conclusively to the benefits of small schools…”
The school board remains unswayed by criticism due to the rising costs of maintaining the current schools. The Buildings, Grounds, and Transportation Committee has noted that it will cost $2.8 million in maintenance and repairs to keep existing elementary schools open for the 2017-2018 school year. In the next few years, significant repairs would have to be completed, such as replacing the windows in Horace Mann, Ben Franklin and Eisenhower, replacing the trailers at Eisenhower which are at the end of their life expectancy, and re-shingling the roof at Horace Mann.
The schools have other issues that will have to be resolved for their continued use, such as water in the crawl spaces at Eisenhower and Ben Franklin, rooms at Ben Franklin that flood regularly during heavy rains which may need to have their walls replaced, ceiling tiles that need to be replaced in all four buildings, plaster problems at Horace Mann, paint peeling from the ceiling onto the dropped ceilings at Horace Mann, areas where the true ceilings have collapsed above the dropped ceilings at Ben Franklin, the emergency generators at Eisenhower, Horace Mann and East Pike are of insufficient capacity, and the urinals in the boys restrooms at Ben Franklin need to be replaced and will require replacing the entire floor.
Some IHS students acknowledged these issues, such as freshman Maddie Caroff stating, “It’ll be sad if they close Horace Mann, but I think it’s for the best. The building is falling apart.”
Furthermore, certain annual costs will be reduced as a result of reduced administrative staff and reduced busing costs. The total cost reduction is approximately $534,000 per year. However, Kirsch acknowledged the loss of neighborhood schools will have a negative impact on the Indiana Borough tax base. “Indiana Borough and its residents have real concerns about what happens to the areas around Horace Mann and Eisenhower Elementary schools once those schools close… If zoning issues cannot be overcome and the schools cannot be used, the school district should consider demolishing them to avoid causing blight in those areas.”
At a question and answer meeting January 30, concerned citizens repeatedly raised questions about the traffic congestion, flooding risks, and cost. Kirsch responded that “traffic congestion cannot be avoided and will have to be managed.” However, Kirsch did not think flooding would be an issue because the building will be constructed 20” above the 500 year floodplain. IHS sophomore Rachel Okey agreed with the citizens, “There are a bunch of engineering problems with the new school, and it’s better to have local schools where students can walk and interact more with the students.”
The largest concern raised was whether the project was affordable. Before the project financing began, the district was $31.9 million in debt and the project is estimated to cost $32 million, yet property taxes are only set to increase by one percent. In a board meeting December 6, IHS junior Hannah Ushock told district residents, “Stop worrying about your taxes and think about your kids.”
Regardless, of the community’s opinion, the project will proceed. On January 16, the school board took a virtual reality tour of the building and is submitting the official reimbursement application to the state for approval.