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Forum gives Quaker Valley residents look at current HS, future plans

| Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

As Martha Pangburn led community members through the maze of hallways and classrooms inside the 92-year-old Quaker Valley High School recently, she pointed out the building's flaws that she said are a hindrance to learning.

“It's cramped, congested, limiting,” said Pangburn, 17, a junior. “It has its boundaries. Learning has changed so much in recent years and a lot of it is collaboration. The high school doesn't allow for that.”

Community members — from children to senior citizens — commented on the “dingy” grey hallways with yellow accents, that some mentioned have hardly changed since they were in school many years ago.

More than 60 people toured the building during the district's first of three community forums where leaders communicated the need for a new high school.

What residents ultimately wanted to know, however, was: “What is this all going to cost me?”

To pay for a new high school, the district plans to go out for referendum — likely within the next year — to get the community's OK to borrow $70 million for the project, Superintendent Heidi Ondek said.

“We need to decide what we want and what we're willing to pay for,” she said. “Residents will need to make choices.”

The cost of a new school has yet to be determined and could be more or less than the $70 million, Ondek confirmed. The intent is for the referendum to be put before the public one time.

How that will affect the individual taxpayer remains to be seen.

“The $70 million — what would that do to the millage rate?” resident Peter Floyd asked, while providing his own calculations of how he foresees the millage rate increasing from the project. “It takes very simple math.”

Yet district leaders didn't have an answer during the recent community forum where all nine school board members were present.

“We're not prepared to answer that yet,” Ondek said. “This is an estimation.”

She reiterated the district wants to be accurate with its numbers when providing them to the public.

Residents questioned how the district could ask them to approve $70 million in borrowing, without knowing what that will do to their individual tax bill. They asked the district to provide that information in enough time before they have to make a decision.

Ondek said the district is still dealing with estimates for the project and will have more concrete numbers before residents are asked to vote at the polls.

Last year, school board members entered into a $7.5 million sales agreement to purchase 128 acres of land off of Camp Meeting Road from Three Rivers Trust. The deal for that site should be finalized within the next two weeks, Ondek said. The district borrowed nearly $10 million to fund the purchase.

Yet residents questioned why the district would buy land without knowing first if the community is going to agree to borrow the funds needed to build a new high school.

Ondek said the purchase “preserves a choice for the community.”

In 1993, district leaders identified challenges with the high school that needed to be addressed, Ondek said. That means 24 classes have graduated from the school since leaders began talking about the problem.

While the building has space constraints, it's also old and has constant leaks.

District leaders canvassed the area to find land suitable for a new school, once renovating the current building and building on the current site were removed from the table. The current high school was already renovated twice in the last century.

State Department of Education guidelines recommend the district build on a site of at least 40 acres.

Options were slim, leaders said.

“We have been looking for a site for years,” said board member David Pusateri, who serves as the facilities chair. “I think it would be irresponsible to let this option go. There just aren't options in the community.”

Board President Sarah Heres said a big factor was finding a “willing seller” with enough land in the community.

“What I'm happy about is, we're moving forward,” she said.

District leaders brought in BrainSpaces, a nationally recognized education planning firm, and MAYA Design, a design consultancy and research lab, to create an educational plan to build a “high school of the future.”

While the adults figure out the numbers, Pangburn said nearly every student at the high school is rallying behind a new school.

As an athlete, who plays tennis, runs track and swims, Pangburn said when she visits other schools, she realizes what Quaker Valley could have that would benefit the students.

“I think we're bound by the this building,” junior Katherine Blaugrund, 17 added. “It's a pretty universal feeling that improvements are needed.”

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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