The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 31, 2013

Making the grade: Administrators: School upgrades improve student outcomes

JOHNSTOWN — Schoolhouses used to be tiny. In the 19th century, most were a single, vaulted room with rows of benches that could seat little more than a dozen pupils. They were usually painted white or bright red – the cheapest of paint colors at the time.

My, how things have changed. Education isn’t a luxury anymore – it’s a necessity. And 21st century school administrators aren’t just throwing up a plank shed in an afternoon and employing schoolmarms to teach the three ‘R’s’ – they’re planning and commissioning multiacre complexes to host a vast array of academic programs that cater to an ever-growing palette of student interests.

“A project (like this) is very consuming,” said Tom Fleming, superintendent for Richland School District. “At every phase of planning and construction, a decision needs to be made. It’s quite a process.”

The Richland Senior High School is the most recently developed in our area. Although the district’s decision to build was a reactive one – the former middle school building’s roof collapsed in 2003, diverting students to nearby Rachel Hill Elementary – Fleming said the board was committed to a new structure that could grow with the student body and the Richland community.

The three-phase project, which administrators would later tweak to house both middle and high school students, had a price tag around $40 million. It was commissioned by L.R. Kimball & Associates of Ebensburg and came in pieces: The Richland athletics turf field was in first, eight years ago, the fieldhouse – housing locker rooms and weight training areas – came a year after that, and students were filling the classrooms in 2007.

“We wanted to give equal space, expense and attention to the athletics side of the building as well as the arts side of the building,” Fleming said. “So, to have a facility that’s capable of hosting the events that a school is able to take on is something that’s a benefit and something we definitely considered in our planning.”

The school’s modern features, like its state-of-the-art food court-style lunchroom, came with an additional cost, however – a 2-mill increase in property taxes. The district, while receiving a certain degree of state reimbursement for the project, was getting a less-than-average amount in 2008, due to its high tax base and the district’s high enrollment and test scores, which, at the time, were the highest in the region.

Using state funds

“You almost have to be in the rule box and have out-of-the-box thinking at the same time,” said Gerald Zahorchak, superintendent of Greater Johnstown School District.

According to Zahorchak, the district paid for its new school – completed in 2003 – by consolidating and upgrading its existing technical programs. Instead of spending money to send students to Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center, they were kept at the home base, along with the revenues attached to their curriculum.

“We haven’t had the need – because of that project – to increase our taxes,” he said. “Good budgeteering gave us the bond payment every year. ... Those kids actually paid for our new building.”

Zahorchak said he accrued a wealth of knowledge about how school construction is funded in the planning stages of his new school. What he said he never fully got a hold of, however, was how the bonds that districts assume when building are actually financed.

“Typically, when you pay for a bond, you pay back twice the amount you paid for the bond,” he explained, although he added there’s still a mystifying element. “No two people will tell the same story. And you can really spend and overspend in the bond market.”

That’s why taking advantage of state funds at every turn is so important. The winds may change someday. In fact, the state is currently in a two-year moratorium for reimbursing school district projects that have not reached a certain planning stage.

‘Community center for area’

The proposed Forest Hills Middle High School, currently in stage “D” of the planning process, was able to skate in past the cutoff and will be receiving state funding for about 15 percent of the total cost. Zahorchak said they’re fortunate, as only the most independently wealthy school districts and communities in the state will even consider building now.

But the Forest Hills School District has been at the project for about a decade – it was bequeathed by past district officials. It’s addressing district concerns over a drop in districtwide enrollment, antiquated infrastructure and a need for facility consolidation.

Officials put H.F. Lenz Co. of Johnstown in a supervisory role, later contracting Eckles Group of New Castle to plan, render and build 199,000 square feet of new, state-of-the-art school wings around the existing Rangers fieldhouse. And when construction wraps, as is expected in 2015, the district plans to share the fruits of its labor with the rest of the St. Michael-Sidman area.

“The new facility will not only serve the educational needs of the district’s students but act as the recreational and social community center for our area,” reads an official mission statement from the district.

Specifically, the district plans to make the school’s library and media center and proposed dual gymnasiums available to the public after school is out. A “large group instruction room” is also being designed to “accommodate a variety of functional configurations.” Superintendent Edwin Bowser said it’s important that the school’s layout be fluid and reconfigurable.

“We designed the building around our curriculum,” he said. “We built the school so that, in 30 years, no matter what the philosophy in education is, we can adapt for the future needs of the students.”

Like Richland, the facilities could clear new paths for the school to become a community hub. When the main and auxiliary gyms are opened, graduation, districtwide assemblies and athletic tournaments become functional possibilities for the new space, which can hold roughly 1,500 people.

Technology like ceiling speakers and headset microphones for instructors make the already spacious classrooms that much more open. All of those classrooms are locked down by a methodically plotted “mouse trap” security system that not only maintains the building’s integrity when the public resources are in use, but keeps unauthorized visitors trapped in an antechamber that requires magnetic card credentials to exit. An outdoor courtyard could function as a lunch area or a science lab, given the time of day.

Faculty’s feedback important

Fleming said it’s important to get the school faculty’s feedback when building the spaces in which they’ll teach. It’s something they did a good bit of when planning their new high school.

“We asked, ‘What do you like about your current space and, if you had an opportunity to design your space, what would you change?’ ” he said.

The public will also have a say in the developing Forest Hills Middle High School plan. As part of Act 34 – aka the “Taj Mahal Act” – public hearings regarding major construction plans in school districts are required. Describing the law is as easy as illustrating what the name represents – the Taj Mahal, the most expensive and extravagant structure of its time, would be a terribly poor school facility. So, the law is designed to block flashy or costly projects that don’t focus on building the best learning environment possible.

For transparency’s sake, 30 days are allowed for inspection of the design documents by local residents. The public hearing for the new school will be held on April 30, with the public consideration period continuing to the end of May.

Building the most cutting-edge and efficient facility possible is still the goal, however, and all the administrators interviewed here shared the sentiment that well-built schools mean well-rounded students.

“We’ve found the school does make a difference,” Zahorchak said. “A good school facility helps with student outcomes – there’s no doubt in my mind about that.”

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