Phoenixville >> Residents in the Phoenixville Area School District came out to voice their concerns over proposed additional projects to the incoming Early Learning Center and Elementary School.

As the Sept. 3 decision date rapidly approaches to approve bids for the school, those in attendance for Thursday’s school board meeting said they opposed the installation of three turf fields and supported the installation of a geothermal heating system. The two are considered additional alternates, which are projects the district could choose to do, but aren’t required in order for the school to open.

“We’ve been here for many, many meetings to discuss these turf fields,” said resident John Mraz. “And other than some of these coaches here that attend these meetings, no one in the public has spoken up to have turf fields.”

“Energy is always a matter of concern to the economics and to the environment of any community,” Mark Connolly, an energy engineer and president of the Phoenixville Green Team, told the board. “Within the sustainability realm, we’re very concerned that the geothermal has not had, at this point, a good analysis for you to look at. So I’m here for you to get the appropriate information that you need to make decisions.”

The school’s original estimated budget was approximately $81.1 million, but favorable bids received July 13 could drop that price by as much as about $19 million if approved. The full list of bids is available on the district’s website at http://bit.ly/1hBvN7N. The school is scheduled to break ground this fall for a spring 2017 construction completion date.

Stan Johnson, executive director of operations, told The Mercury the administration recommends adding the turf fields for a total cost of about $1.6 million. It does not recommend a geothermal system, as it would take 27.6 years to pay off and the price would be calculated in several ways: the contractors, who would install the system at a price of approximately $960,000; the electrician, who would charge approximately $50,000; and the general contractor, who would have less work to do and would give the district a credit, but would still charge roughly $40,000.

The question then becomes how much would the district avoid having to pay for natural gas through a geothermal system? Johnson explained that a geothermal system captures heat from the earth and uses it to heat the building in the colder months of the year and cool it off in the warmer months.

“So the payback would be how much do we avoid paying for natural gas or electricity to run heat pumps as air conditioners?” he said, adding it’s a trade-off of utility costs plus the additional cost to have the system installed.

Johnson said in the private sector most payback periods typically take three to five years. In a public building, a payback period is typically takes eight to 10 years.

“So the school board said if we can do this in a 10-year payback, let’s do geothermal,” he said. The district hired engineers to do a payback analysis and they came to a conclusion it would take more than 27 years to payback the system. Johnson further stated that the new school building will be very energy efficient. While it won’t be certified by the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program, architects who designed the building said if the district were to apply for that certification, it could earn a gold standard, or the second-highest level of energy efficiency, behind the platinum standard. A certification would cost roughly $70,000.

At Thursday’s meeting, Mraz said he wanted the board to understand that despite having received lower than estimated bids, the three turf fields would still cost an additional $1.6 million to taxpayers.

Resident Kathleen Mraz cited a Newsweek article from earlier this year that showed Phoenixville Area High School was not ranked among the top 500 in the country. She said she understood the district’s defense that there was still work to be done but improvements were being made. Yet she questioned whether money intended for fields could be better served.

“Would it not be a better use of our money than turf fields,” she said, “to be put towards curriculum changes, or, perhaps, better instructors?”

Resident Peter Mercuri recounted his experience at a recent building and grounds committee meeting. He said while he was pleased to hear the bids were under budget, he too questioned whether the district needed three turf fields.

“Then Mr. (Kenneth) Butera chimed in and said ‘that’ll be great, we’ll be able to have a lot of lacrosse tournaments,’” Mercuri said. “And I thought ‘hmm, I didn’t think we were going to have all these tournaments on these six fields. These six fields were supposed to be for the kids, but now they’re going to have tournaments.’ Well I’m a taxpayer in Schuylkill Township and we say no more turf.”

With the geothermal heating system, residents said the board needed to think long term about how much the district would save versus the large up front investment.

Resident Lisa Longo said she’d been in contact with DSB Management that estimated it could install the geothermal system for $500,000 less than what was used in the district’s analysis.

“I had gone back to Barton (Associates consulting engineers) and asked them to run the analysis at half of the ($960,000), (asking) what was the payback going to be if it was half?” she said. “Thirteen years. So, (board member) Josh (Gould) you said a 10 year (payback) we’ve now got it at 13 using the best numbers we have. I don’t think there’s really any more debate to be had. Geothermal is the right thing to do for the district.”

Superintendent Alan Fegley said he’d received Longo’s information but had not had a chance to have it analyzed by an expert.

“However, in looking at that letter, one of the assumptions that was made was that there would be a 50 percent match that there would be a grant coming forward,” he said. “They said there would be a 50 percent match and they lowered the price to $500,000 from ($960,000) to come up with their figure.”

Fegley said until someone can promise the district $500,000 “you can’t use that figure.”

Longo said there were three different payback analyses: the first done by Barton would take 27.6 years, the second, also by Barton, would take 13 years and the third by DSB Management, which claims it can do it in six years.

“I’m willing to say throw out the high, throw out the low, which is what you usually do,” she said. “Go with the middle. We can go with a 13-year payback. Even without any grants, because this company is saying they can save us that $500,000 without any grants.”

Gould questioned the company’s credibility and if it had seen the original request for proposal sent out to all bidders. He then focused on how much a geothermal system would actually save.

“There is no argument that there would be some savings,” he said. “But the figure that we were given in building and grounds was we would spend about $4,000 to $5,000 a year on gas. Then there’s some additional savings because there’s some equipment that has to be replaced every 20 years and I think that was in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, so call it $1,500 a year for $30,000, every 20 years. We’re not talking huge amounts of savings. We are talking some savings.”

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