What’s the future of Bellefonte’s elementary schools? Parents, community to help decide

The Bellefonte Area School District has identified Bellefonte Elementary as needing the most and costliest renovations of its four elementary schools. The district is holding a series of listening meetings about the future of the schools.
The Bellefonte Area School District has identified Bellefonte Elementary as needing the most and costliest renovations of its four elementary schools. The district is holding a series of listening meetings about the future of the schools.

Bellefonte Area School District is inviting parents, students and community members to be a part of planning the future of the district’s four elementary schools.

In a series of “listening meetings” — the first of which happened Jan. 23 — the district will hear questions, concerns and ideas on a possible school renovation or consolidation plan. School board member Kristen Bruckner said the district would take into consideration safety, equity, transportation distance and time, creating communities for student development and best instructional practices and learning environments.

Following a study of all four elementary schools two years ago, the district identified Bellefonte Elementary as needing the most, costliest renovations. Benner and Pleasant Gap elementary schools followed close behind, meaning they will both need to be replaced or renovated within the next five to 10 years.

Rebuild, renovate or build a new school?

Problems with renovating Bellefonte Elementary include the difficulty and high cost of retro-fitting the old building with ADA-accessible ramps, elevators and bathrooms, said district Fiscal Affairs Director Ken Bean. One estimate the board received was $1.2 million just to install an elevator inside Bellefonte Elementary, said board President Jon Guizar.

“The brick shell does not lend itself to modification,” he said.

There are several plans parents and community members have been asked to choose from. The first is completely rebuilding or renovating Bellefonte Elementary, which the district estimates would cost $21 million alone. The second involves combining Bellefonte and Benner elementary schools in one new building. The third involves combining Bellefonte, Benner and Pleasant Gap elementary schools in one new building. And the fourth involves consolidating all four elementary schools, including Marion Walker, into one.

The district would develop the land it owns on Airport Road near Governors Park in Bellefonte, Bean said. There would be room for additional athletic fields and walking trails surrounding the potential new elementary school.

If the district were to build a new elementary school, combining up to four schools, the estimated cost would be around $32 million, according to Bean. With $2 million in reserve, Bean said, the district would borrow $15 million one year and another $15 million the next year to fund the project. The district would aim to complete the project in five years in order to open a new school building at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year.

In order to absorb that cost, Bean said, the district would restructure its current bond debt — from capital projects like renovating Bellefonte Area High and Marion-Walker Elementary schools — over 20 years. In that scenario, there would “ideally” be no increase in the tax rate, he said.

“A lot of it will determine what we build, how we build,” he said.

A second scenario would increase the tax rate a little over 2 mills by frontloading the existing debt over the next eight years, but allow the district to pay off the outstanding debt more quickly.

“My goal ... is not to raise taxes more than necessary,” Bean said.

At last week’s school board meeting, the district formed a construction committee to begin the architect selection process for a new or renovated elementary school building.

Loss of a community landmark?

Some parents of current and former BASD students expressed concerns about losing Bellefonte Elementary as a community landmark if the district ultimately decided to build a new school building. Others said they enjoyed the small class sizes at Bellefonte and walking their children to school, but many acknowledged the shortcomings of the old building — including the lack of air conditioning.

“My daughter threw up in class, it was so hot,” said one parent. “To me, the money is well worth a new building.”

Several parents also wanted to know if the district would consider renovating all three elementary schools — Bellefonte, Benner and Pleasant Gap — instead of trying to consolidate them. Bean estimated the cost to renovate the three schools separately would be $37 million, but he said that number could change.

One parent of a current and future Pleasant Gap student said she loved the convenience of how close the school is located to their house, and would be in favor of renovations instead of consolidation.

“I would be sad if the school moved,” she said.

With a new school building combining two or three elementary schools, Bean said, the district could more equitably split class sizes, making sure that grades kindergarten through 2nd would have 22 students or less and grades 3rd through 5th would have between 25 and 28 students.

But no decision has been made yet, and Bean said the district would try its best to preserve the character of Bellefonte Elementary regardless of which school scenario the board votes for.

About 50 parents and community members total attended last week’s listening meeting, with about 30 of those people attending via Facebook Live. The next two meetings are Feb. 28 at Benner Elementary and March 25 at Pleasant Gap Elementary.

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.