The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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May 13, 2014

Westmont board to shut middle school

JOHNSTOWN — The Westmont Hilltop school board on Monday hired a  construction manager to help with two projects that would move middle school students to the elementary and high schools while closing the middle school.

The board also approved a tentative $20,556,260 budget for the 2014-15 school year that retains current taxes. It is the third consecutive year without a tax increase in the district.

Assistant Superintendent and Business Manager Donald B. Irwin Jr. said tentative plans calls for moving grades 5 and 6 pupils to the elementary school and grades 7 and 8 students to the high school.

To house the additional students, the plans call for additions to be built at both schools with the existing space at the elementary school to be renovated.

The district plans to complete the projects without raising taxes, he said.

Two buildings would be significantly more cost-efficient to operate than three buildings, he said. The district’s existing debt will be paid off during the next school year, making available $815,000 annually to pay for the projects, Irwin said.

The district has had several studies completed on the middle school, constructed in 1920, he said. The independent studies estimated a price tag of more than $18 million to renovate the school to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to make it compatible with the educational programming parents expect for their children, Irwin said.

The $18 million was too much when the board considered the known updates needed for the elementary school plus shrinking state support and the spiraling costs of the state pension crisis, he said.

The board has not decided what to do with the middle school, he said. Everything remains on the table from marketing the building to a private developer for apartments or senior living to demolition for additional space to be used with the existing gymnasium and Price Field, he said.

No matter what becomes of the middle school, the gymnasium is expected to remain a community asset, Irwin said.

The board has engaged architect Jeff Haman to restore the masonry and replace the metal siding on the gymnasium.

Board President Michele Trevorrow said they hope to start the projects during the next school term. The work is expected to take two years to complete, she said.

“It is the most cost efficient way to move forward based on the studies that we have done,” she said.

Frank Sojak is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FrankNews10.

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