Will Bellefonte consolidate its elementary schools? Project poised to take next steps

Depending on how the Bellefonte Area School District Board of Directors moves forward with the proposed elementary building project, district parents could be sending their kids to a brand new school within a few years.

With three choices on the table — rebuild, renovate and consolidate — the project may be taking a step forward, with more opportunities coming for community input.

At a recent board meeting, members discussed the series of presentations they heard from architect firms over several months. In a 6-3 vote, the board authorized Ken Bean, director of fiscal affairs, and Scott Etter, school solicitor, to negotiate a contract with McKissack Architects to provide services for the project. Based on the guidelines put in place by the project’s construction committee, the district could spend $24 million to build a new facility or $5 million on renovations.

“(The origin of the project) was really geared around making good decisions by continuing to try to repair and renovate older buildings that are long beyond what would be considered their useful life, especially when they weren’t designed for the purposes that they’re being used,” said board president Jon Guizar.

The current options under consideration are to renovate the Bellefonte Elementary building — located on 100 W. Linn St. — or construct a new facility behind the high school and adjacent to Governors Park. The contract with McKissack Architects will be voted on at Tuesday’s meeting, and depending on what the board decides as it works with the firm, parents and students could be shifting schools if all or a mix of four elementary schools, Bellefonte, Benner, Pleasant Gap and Marion-Walker, are consolidated.

“We’ve taken quite a few months to get to this point,” Guizar said. “Even just selecting the architect was a lot of hours, time and effort put in by all. Now that we will hopefully get that part behind us, we can focus all of our energy between the architect, the community and the district to really get a good pulse on what the community would like to do.”

Once a contract has been approved, Guizar said the firm will present information and potential options to the board, staff and residents. When discussing the companies — McKissack, CBA and RLPS — board members said they were impressed by every presentation and tour. During the meeting, Bellefonte Superintendent Michelle Saylor said RLPS “stood out” to her, but after hearing positive feedback from other school officials when checking references, Saylor said the board couldn’t go wrong with any of the firms.

Saylor declined to comment further to the Centre Daily Times on the project, saying the board was “not at that point yet.”

“It’s really up for grabs, so we’ll be looking for the architect to provide some of those options with supporting data,” Guizar said. “And then really (we’ll) give (information to) the community to review and give us a good read on where they’d like to see this go.”

A 2017 feasibility study of all four elementary schools identified Bellefonte Elementary as needing the most and costliest of renovations. Benner and Pleasant Gap elementary schools followed close behind, meaning they will need to be replaced or renovated in the next five to 10 years. To gauge community concern, the district held a series of “listening meetings” earlier this year. But now that the district is in negotiations with McKissack and scheduled to approve the contract, Guizar said the board will be more “aggressive” in its efforts to push the project forward and decide what to do with the schools.

“There are a lot of options,” said board member Jeff Steiner. “I think we just do have to go through the process with the architect.”

Steiner said the board is working to engage the community and weigh input with recommendations from an architectural firm.

“The board’s going to have a decision to make,” he said. “There’s more likely two or three options for us to choose from.”

During the listening meetings, parents voiced concern with accessibility issues and lack of air conditioning in Bellefonte Elementary. Others spoke about how they liked the close proximity of Benner and Pleasant Gap to their house, but Bean said in January that renovating three schools would be too expensive for the district — estimating a total cost of $32 million. Community members and parents tuned into the meetings via Facebook Live with questions about staffing, kids having a longer commute to school, class sizes and how the buildings will be used if classes are no longer held there.

“As we present information to the community, whether they continue to put money into old buildings, we’ll show them what that looks like with an idea of what it would cost to bring some of these builds up to today’s educational standards,” Guizar said. “And then compare that to what it would cost to build new construction in different fashions.”

Guizar said the driving force behind the project is to create “equity within education” by designing a facility that will provide students with a quality learning experience.

No matter what the board decides, Steiner said it will rely on feedback from the community while considering how education has and will change into the future.

“Education has changed significantly because the job market is much different now, and it keeps evolving at a rapid pace,” Steiner said. “It’s going to be really important that we have future-forward thinking with our buildings.”

If the project progresses according to schedule, the district anticipates a new building would be open for the 2023 school year.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.