PHOENIXVILLE — An ongoing legal dispute with Meadow Brook Golf Club has officially pushed back the projected opening of Phoenixville Area School District’s planned combined early learning center and elementary school.
“The earliest (time estimate) has now passed,” said Phoenixville Area School Board Vice President Dan Cushing, head of the building and grounds committee at a March 20 board meeting. “So we’re moving on now to the next one.”
Originally, the district hoped to have the replacement for the Kindergarten Center and East Pikeland Elementary School opened for the 2016-17 school year. It appears the earliest it can open now is 2017-18.
“As months pass, that will continue to be pushed out,” Cushing said. “Students will continue to be crowded; students will continue to work in trailer (classrooms). If we’re going to create much more space, we need to proceed.”
Enrollment continues to mount and add pressure to the district where many schools are past capacity, such as East Pikeland and the Kindergarten Center, or maxing out, like Barkley and Schuylkill elementary schools.
District projections indicate that by 2016-17, the Kindergarten Center, even with the modular classrooms on site, will have just five seats left open.
Grades one through five in the district will be over capacity by 143 students in 2016-17 even by conservative estimates, including the current modular classrooms installed.
Already, the early learning center/elementary school has been designed to hold more students than originally proposed, but it can only get so large before the building’s shared facilities, the “core,” like the library, gym, or cafeteria, cannot handle the amount of students they would need to, according to Stan Johnson, the district’s executive director of operations.
At the moment, the building is designed to house 1,150 students, according to Cushing.
“There are two opportunities for expansion that are built into the plan that we need to vet with municipal authorities,” he said. “There’s not much more that can be done because we’re targeting a core facility.”
Student capacity there cannot go beyond 1,450, Johnson said, though even 1,450 will “sorely stress” the building.
The school district will have to wait until at least May 16 to find out whether its bid to acquire the Meadow Brook Golf Club’s property through eminent domain will be successful or not. A hearing is scheduled for that day before Chester County Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody, who already heard from both the district and Meadow Brook’s lawyers after the latter filed objections to how the district did or did not notify them of the eminent domain condemnation.
If Cody decides in favor of the school district and approves the transfer of the Meadow Brook property, a “fair market value” of the land will also be decided upon for the school district to pay.
It’s unclear how much that could be but Meadow Brook’s owners asked for $8 million during negotiations for a sale last summer, the school district offered as much as $5 million and said the property was appraised for $3.725 million.
Once that transaction is finalized, plans for the school complex are estimated to cost approximately $65 million.
The complex includes athletic fields for all district students in addition to the school grounds.
Opponents continue to say the project is larger than it needs to be but the school board and district administration maintain they need a property as large as Meadow Brook’s.
The Phoenixville Area School District may be undertaking more building expansion even after the combined early learning center/elementary school is built.
“We may be entering the next phase,” Cushing said, which will likely entail expansion of the secondary schools. “When one looks at the growth levels that we have, we will be at or above the administration’s functional capacity for these facilities and we will need to have a release valve for those.”
By 2019, the high school will “outstrip” its capacity.
One idea floated out to potentially gain some seats at the secondary level was eventually reconfiguring the elementary school portion of the new building into a sixth-grade center.
At the moment, though, the sixth-grade conversion is just a potentiality.
“We don’t want to make it sound like we are going down that path,” said board President Josh Gould. “These are contingencies we’re looking at.”
Given the large projections, per the current design, Cushing said “the early learning portion” of the new building will be “fine” and not likely need expansion or conversions.
“We’re going to be making crucial decisions that once you pass over them, it’s supremely difficult to go backwards because you have to go back over township authorities, other municipal authorities to fix,” Cushing said of the decisions regarding the current building project.
In March, the building advisory committee that was formed to help guide the board’s decisions through construction of the new early learning center/elementary school had a “kickoff meeting.”
“They are fully oriented to the project and to their role, which is essentially to be an advisor to the building and grounds committee,” Cushing said.
Cushing said the committee wanted outside professionals to consult with throughout the process including architects, engineers and project managers.
Different members of the committee have been given tasks in their specialties, Cushing said.