A plan by the Upper Perkiomen School Board to construct a new middle school continues to solicit concerns from the community. Last week, residents spilled out of the multi-purpose room at the district's business office on East Buck Road to participate in a public hearing – required by state law – to consider the proposal.
All but three of the more than 30 speakers expressed their opposition to the board's recommendation to build the school for sixth, seventh and eighth graders on 43 acres along Montgomery Avenue in Upper Hanover.
Multiple residents argued during the Jan. 4 meeting that the project's maximum price tag, identified by district officials as $58.95 million, would facilitate a tax increase most property owners could not afford.
"I'm scared of being overtaxed," said Mike Cooper, an East Greenville resident. "At this rate, I may have to move out of the school district and the state."
Clifford Weber of Upper Hanover said that he knew of several residents who would be forced to sell their homes if the new middle school is built.
Eve Puhalla described the proposal as unconscionable. She said completion of the facility would "kill the community."
School Board Solicitor Kenneth A. Roos managed the hearing, mandated by Act 34 of 1973. The law requires that a public hearing be held on all new construction and substantial additions for second-, third- and fourth-class school districts.
About 40 people had to watch the hearing on a closed circuit television in an adjacent room because the multi-purpose room was at capacity.
According to Roos, all spoken testimony (recorded by a stenographer) and additional submissions will be forwarded to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. He said the agency will analyze the information prior to issuing an approval or a denial of the project, which includes determining whether or not the district will be reimbursed through the agency's PlanCon program.
In his 26-year career, Roos said the agency has never denied the application of a school district project with which he has been associated.
The solicitor opened the hearing, which lasted three-and-a-half hours, by explaining the project's legislative history. Roos said the project's maximum building cost is $46.75 million.
"This is not the beginning of the process," Roos said.
In October, the school board voted 6-3 to accept a recommendation by its facilities committee to build the school on a parcel near the Green Lane Reservoir and next to the high school.
Superintendent Alexis McGloin explained how the board identified overcrowding issues at the Upper Perkiomen Middle School and Marlborough Elementary and considered five solutions proposed by the facilities committee. The current middle school was built in 1947 and renovated five times.
McGloin told the audience that the board examined the options to add on to Marlborough and the middle school, as well as construct a new facility for kindergarten and first graders, fifth- and sixth-graders, seventh- and eighth-graders or build a new middle school for students in grades six through eight.
"We have guidance offices working out of a closet at the middle school," she said. "Marlborough is at capacity."
The superintendent argued that the construction of a new middle school would alleviate space issues and "function as a true middle school" with a minimal tax increase.
Jamie Doyle, a senior managing consultant from Public Financial Management, said the impact from the bond issues would lead to a tax rate increase of 2.11 mills over four years, an 8.62 percent increase.
According to Doyle, the effective reimbursement rate for the middle school project would be 7.32 percent.
At least five audience members described the option to renovate the middle school as their preferred alternative. A similar number of people suggested that the plan to build a middle school should be determined by a public referendum.
Michelle Shive argued that if the school board builds the middle school, "our taxes will explode, businesses will have to raise their prices, tenants will lose renters and no one will want to move here."
Pennsburg Mayor Vicki Lightcap, who spoke on behalf of borough council, registered her opposition to the board's plan. She identified several concerns, including the potential impact of blasting at the site to residents on Montgomery Avenue and additional financial costs to borough residents.
"There are too many questions," Lightcap said.
Raeann B. Hofkin, John Gehman and Kerry Drake – the three school board members who voted against building the school – spoke publically at the hearing. All three said they were representing themselves and not the board.
"Our community cannot afford this," Hofkin said.
Gehman, the board vice president, said approval would be a "financial nail in the coffin" for many residents. Though he admitted that the current middle school and Marlborough Elementary face pressing needs for space, Gehman argued that less costly options need to be considered.
Drake argued that the district needs to focus on a curriculum that prepares students for life after high school more than creating a new facility.
"I support moving forward with renovation plans but not building a new middle school," he said.
Jennifer Sands, a Green Lane resident who currently serves as a substitute teacher in the school district and is the current secretary for the Marlborough Elementary's Parents and Teachers for Students organization, favored the new building. She said it would enhance the educational experience and foster students' social and emotional development.
Amanda Merrell testified that she was 100 percent in favor of a new middle school. She argued that an imbalance of people opposing the project attended the hearing.