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School Board Ponders Nitschmann's Future

The Bethlehem Area School Board is expected to decide in February whether it wants to build a new Nitschmann Middle School or renovate the 90-year-old building a third time.

 

By next month, the Bethlehem Area School Board expects to make a decision on the future of the 90-year-old Nitschmann Middle School building.

Will they renovate it or will they replace it?

On Monday night, school board members heard a report from Facilities and Operations Director Mark Stein on four options for the building – three variations for renovating and a plan to build a new building at an estimated cost of $53.7 million.

The options as outlined:

A.  Capital improvements would be limited to electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems. There will be fire alarm and emergency power upgrades; air conditioning; new heating and ventilation system; new exterior doors and windows; a sprinkler system; new ceilings and ceiling tiles and new floor tiles. Cost: $23.1 million

B.  All of the improvements outlined in Option A, along with some changes to building finishes and internal space modifications. Cost: $34.6 million

C.  The improvements outlined in options A and B, along with the construction of building additions, which will allow for a new auditorium, gymnasiums, kitchen and classrooms. Cost: $48.4 million

D.  A new Nitschmann Middle School will be built. The existing building will be demolished, changing the footprint of the property at Eighth Avenue and Union Boulevard. Cost $53.7 million

Several board members, including President Mike Faccinetto, have already decided that new construction is the best option. Faccinetto noted that Nitschmann has already gone through two large capital improvement projects in its history.

“I don’t see that we have another option,” Faccinetto said. “At what point do we waste taxpayers' money again and do a disservice?”

Board members Aurea Ortiz and Shannon Patrick agreed.

“After taking a tour of the building, I do not think it is a proper learning environment,” Patrick said.

Two board members – Basilio Bonilla and William Burkhardt – questioned the magnitude of the expense of new construction.

The new Northeast Middle School, which was completed in 2005, cost $32 million to build, Burkhardt said. Is inflation the only factor in increased expense? he asked.

More recently, the district built a new Broughal Middle School for $57 million, but that project was more elaborate, involving the construction of a parking deck.

Nitschmann is the only middle school of four in the Bethlehem Area School District that has not been extensively renovated or replaced since the district began an aggressive capital improvement program 20 years ago.

The district had planned to begin replacing Nitschmann after Broughal construction wrapped up, but the nation’s economic woes, and the district's, put the project on ice.

In 2008, the estimated cost of construction was $64 million. The plan put forth on Monday is $10 million cheaper and district officials say even more may be shaved as planning proceeds.

Building new is still expected to cost the average taxpayer $60.52 a year, though that does not necessarily mean that taxes will go up by that much if the district’s builds a new school, said board member Irene Follweiler.

Regardless of which option the board chooses, borrowing and construction would not begin before 2015 to give the district a chance to pay off more of its long-term debt, which currently sits at $286 million.

If a new school is built, the district’s long-term debt will return to where it is right now by the time the new Nitschmann opens in 2017, according to Superintendent Joseph Roy.

Fix the BASD January 08, 2013 at 12:44 PM
What happened to the option of busing students to schools that have the room? Why expand when enrollment is dropping? I hope the Property Tax Independence Act gains some traction soon.
Concern Citizen January 08, 2013 at 05:40 PM
I do not want my child bus to another school just because they have room. I don't feel safe sending my kid to some of their options....
Bob Zahm January 08, 2013 at 08:03 PM
If the school board is not looking at capacity forecasts for the other middle schools (or Junior Highs as we called them when I attended) and demonstrating that there isn't space for the Nitschmann kids, then they have no basis for proposing any renovation work - whether it be rehab or demolish/build new. The idea some parents "might not feel safe" with their kids at other schools could be viewed as very thinly veiled racism.
Daryl Nerl (Editor) January 08, 2013 at 08:17 PM
The report school board members reviewed on Monday night does include enrollment forecasts for the middle schools over the next five years. The district is projecting 3,207 middle school students district wide by 2017-18. Currently, there are 3,480 middle school students. However, district officials noted that the report does not account for potential residential development in Bethlehem Township, on the Martin Tower property and in South Bethlehem.
Bob Zahm January 10, 2013 at 03:34 AM
Thanks for the update, Daryl, but that stlil doesn't make the case for re-building Nitschman. The potential for increased enrollment due to potential development in Bethlehem Township might due something at some point in the future. But what's the utilization of the other middle schools now? Could they take the Nitschmann kids w/o crowding? If so, shut the place down and postpone looking at re-construction in a few years - when residential development plans might start to appear.
Daryl Nerl (Editor) January 10, 2013 at 03:52 AM
Thanks for the comment, Bob. However, even at the projected levels of enrollment -- and dividing them into three instead of four middle schools, we are talking about more than 1,000 students per school. I don't think any of the three remaining schools are equipped to handle that many kids. You are also talking about forcing every kid in West Bethlehem to go to some other part of the city for Middle School. If I were a parent there, I'm not sure I would appreciate that.
Fix the BASD January 11, 2013 at 01:04 AM
Class sizes should be increased. Ah, but that is another argument the BASD cannot win, but ignores none the less....

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