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Pa. schools debate ends without vote

August 19, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

Approximately 100 members of the public attended Wednesday night's special meeting of the Chambersburg School Board, but that number was dwindling as debate over a district building plan exceeded three hours.

Opinion among those at the meeting was divided over the $132.6 million proposal and the board members appeared not to have shifted from the positions they took on July 21, when the board voted 5-4 to approve building a new high school, converting the junior and senior high schools to middle schools, and reducing the number of elementary schools to a dozen.

At 10 p.m., the board took a break in the debate, which began at 7 p.m. with a period of public comment. The board had yet to vote on a debt resolution that would have directed the administration to prepare a series of bond issues to pay for the projects.

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Business Manager Rick Vensel outlined four scenarios for constructing and paying for the schools. The most aggressive would have one secondary and one elementary school construction project under way until completion of the program. Repaying the debt would take until 2034 or 2041, depending on how long the board wants to extend financing.

Vensel said real estate taxes would increase by 1.5 mills to 1.76 mills a year for eight years, depending on how long the board wishes to extend debt payments. The district borrowing capacity is about $140 million, Vensel said.

At 1.76 mills, the tax bill on a $100,000 property would increase about $25 a year for each of the eight years, according to Vensel. The lower the mill increase, however, the more interest the district would pay in the long run, he said.

Much of the debate among board members was over the proposed elementary consolidation. Those who voted against the July 21 resolution said they had problems turning Chambersburg Area Middle School into an elementary school with four classes for each grade.

Residents got about an hour to give their opinions on the plan.

"I can't see that being the best way to go," parent Bill Dann said of the plan. He said the district should retain the existing high school and build another for roughly 1,500 students near Faust Junior High. He also opposed reducing the number of elementary schools to the point "that you take the schools out of the community."

Virginia Gill, who teaches in the Greencastle-Antrim School District, said large elementary schools have been successful in that district. She said, however, the district has enough land across the street from the high school for a school to house ninth- and 10th-grade students, leaving the existing building for 11th and 12th grades.

"We are in this position because of the four-decade procrastination by the board," administration and community, said parent Lynn Fry, who supports the board's plan.

Some speakers said the board ignored the architectural firm hired to study the district's building needs, which recommended building one new high school while retaining the existing one.

Susan Berrier, who served on the 45-member task force that advised the architects, said the firm's recommendations ran counter to the wishes of the majority of the task force for a new high school.

"They think that's all going into a Taj Mahal high school," Berrier said of what she described as "misconceptions" by some district residents. "It's a K-through-12 plan."

Berrier said a local poll showed overwhelming support by the public for a new county prison, while the public was divided over the plan adopted by the board.

"Did I move my family to a community that is more concerned over incarceration than education?" she asked.

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