CHESTER HILL, Clearfield County — Philipsburg-Osceola Junior High saw its last class of students walk out the door this month as the district prepares for a building project that would move seventh-and eighth-graders to a new middle school on the site of the current North Lincoln Hill Elementary.
But will that project come to fruition?
Bids are out for the estimated $21.7 million project and are set to be opened Tuesday, but a Clearfield County Planning Commission meeting Monday and the threat of school building reimbursement cuts in Harrisburg could throw a wrench into those plans.
According to Walt Tack, of Reynolds Construction, concerns about the potential for a moratorium on building projects from the state Department of Education have suggested an unofficial deadline of June 30 to get approval and reimbursement. The district is trying to get the planning documents in under that wire.
Chester Hill is putting an obstacle in the way with a letter of protest to the Clearfield County Planning Commission. In May, a borough representative told the school board at a public meeting that the municipality didn’t approve the documents and returned the plans.
But school district solicitor Winifred Jones-Wenger said the borough doesn’t have the power to reject the school plans. The small municipality just over the county line from Philipsburg ceded its power to authorize building projects to the county Planning Commission. Jones-Wenger said a signature verifying the necessary paperwork was presented was all that was required. She attended a meeting to explain this, and that the borough did have the right to send a letter to the Planning Commission detailing support or opposition.
That letter was sent, with a laundry list of concerns, including the lack of a traffic study, a “firm belief” that the area is undermined, the district’s lack of communication on the project,
and questions about a planned natural gas main line.
“We know there are mines in that area,” said borough Manager Don Enck, who cited a recent cave-in at a ballpark in the nearby village of Hudson in Decatur Township.
School board member Jim Verbeck, who has been a vocal opponent of the project, brought in someone in February who claimed to find empty spaces and water beneath the North Lincoln Hill grounds using metal rods, a glass jar and a brass key.
The district, however, has spent thousands of dollars on geotechnical studies from two different independent firms, including more than a dozen test borings and electrical imaging. None of the tests showed evidence of mining underground, but did show evidence of reclaimed surface mining and a bedrock of sandstone.
Enck said that better communication from the district and an explanation of these findings might have alleviated some borough concerns. However, the structural issues are only half the problem.
Philipsburg Borough Council member Barbara Gette presented the board with a letter signed by several members of council who oppose the project on the grounds that the taxpayers can’t afford it, suggesting the district wait until economic conditions improve to make such a pricey decision.
Enck confirmed that similar concerns are part of the Chester Hill opposition as well.
“The Sixth Street school does need repairs, but why didn’t they repair this school before doing this up here?” he asked, referring to the current junior high.
The timeline on the project began in 2008 with a feasibility study that showed the need to do something with the out-of-date junior high. For some, it began even earlier, with studies back in the 1990s that showed a need, and plans 15 years ago to build a middle school that were shot down by opponents and resulted in replacing Philipsburg Elementary instead.
In 2009, a volunteer committee of school board members, educators and community members reviewed a number of proposals, including making repairs and shuffling enrollment before deciding on making Philipsburg and Osceola Mills schools into kindergarten through fourth grade elementaries, and renovating and expanding North Lincoln Hill for fifth through eighth grade.
To date, the district has issued $10 million in bonds and approved issuing another $10 million for the project which will have to be repaid with interest. District offices, located at North Lincoln Hill, have already begun to be relocated to the high school in preparation for construction to begin sometime in July, a schedule put in place to have the necessary areas of the school ready completed enough for student use in August. So far, about $1.7 million has been spent on planning, design and testing.
Jones-Wenger said a delay of the project could cost the district — and the taxpayers — as much as $3 million. The Clearfield County Planning Commission meets Monday at 7:30 p.m.