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Possible Elementary School Closure: Thoughts, Concerns Shared

Parents, residents and public officials spoke out at a public hearing Thursday about the possible closure of either Hopewell or Lower Milford elementary school—two aging Southern Lehigh schools that need millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades.

Parents, residents and public officials spoke out at a public hearing Thursday about the possible closure of either Hopewell or Lower Milford elementary school—two aging Southern Lehigh schools that need millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades.

The hearing, school board president Jeffrey Dimmig explained, is required by the state school code whenever a district decides there is the potential for closure of an elementary school.

There will now be a three-month waiting period before the board can take any further action on the closure of either school, if that is what it ultimately decides is in the best interest of the district.

"It's also possible that at the end of the three months, potentially no building will be closed," Dimmig acknowledged.

Unlike at prior meetings, where public comment came primarily from supporters of Lower Milford Elementary School, Thursday's hearing drew a mix of supporters who spoke in favor of keeping either school.

In the case of Hopewell, supporters such as PTA president Jennifer Phillip acknowledged the fact that the 43-year-old school—which needs an estimated $12 million in repairs—has to be demolished.

School district officials explained that its construction on a slab and the current building's complex interdependent systems make renovating it impractical from a cost perspective, and the board decided last month that it will only consider options that involve replacing it or moving its students to a different building.

The cost to rebuild Hopewell is estimated at about $15 million.

The option of moving students to the Joseph P. Liberati Intermediate School—which board members had requested that administrators research—was discussed at Thursday's hearing, but superintendent Leah Christman stopped short of recommending that all K-3 students could be relocated there.

While it would be feasible to house all of the district's current third grade students in the intermediate school, children in kindergarten through second grade would be put at a disadvantage "because that building just was not designed for them," she said.

Christman also stated that moving the third graders to the intermediate school would turn the building from a spacious one into a school in which nearly every available space is being used as a classroom.

And that potential scenario "doesn't allow for any growth," she said.

Between 2003-04 and 2012, the district's student enrollment increased by 5.3 percent, and four percent growth is forecast over the next 10 years, Southern Lehigh director of support services Todd Bergey said.

The majority of that growth is forecast to be near Coopersburg, he stated.

Center Valley parent Mark Rizzo told the board that it in evaluating the possible closure of Hopewell, it should consider "where your tax base is."

Rizzo argued that closing Hopewell would hurt property values in one of the most densely populated parts of the district, where many new developments have lured young families.

"Our future lies in replacing Hopewell with a better building for our students, families and faculty," agreed Hopewell teacher and Upper Saucon resident Nancy Smillie.

"Without rebuilding Hopewell we are not meeting the needs and future growth of our community," she added.

Thursday's hearing was also noteworthy for the fact that two Lower Milford Township supervisors spoke out in favor of keeping their township's only public school, which supervisor William Roy reminded the board is a designated Red Cross shelter for Lower Milford residents.

Supervisor Mike Snovitch, who responded to earlier safety concerns expressed by the administration about the school's relative remoteness, said the township's police department always makes protecting the school a priority.

He also questioned the district's recent demographic study, which he said disadvantages Lower Milford in the fight to keep the school open.

"Your population projections are built on macro-assumptions," Snovitch said, adding that population projections shouldn't even be part of the discussion, because they are so often wrong.

Snovitch—who identified himself as a professional engineer—said the township's own engineer would like to review the district's estimates for repairs to Lower Milford school and asked for the board's cooperation in that matter, which Dimmig promised.

"Closing a school is extremely emotional," said Lower Milford resident Lori Sickenberger. 

"It’s hard on the children. Before any decisions are made, make sure you have the right information," she implored the board.
David Segal October 27, 2013 at 07:17 PM
Why not replace the Hopewell Elementary School with a brand new elementary school next to the Middle School? As Mark Rizzo said, the school should be near the center of the tax base which is exactly where the Middle School/High School are. The Middle School/High School complex also has the best road access and such access will be even better if the Route 309/Lanark Road/Camp Meeting Road intersection is upgraded as planned. Such an intersection upgrade could be completed by the time the new Elementary School is completed.
Limeport Resident October 28, 2013 at 07:41 AM
The are many reasons not to centralize. State school policy is to limit travel time. Thus, geographic not cost base determines cost and according to SLSD that is a very significant cost. The facilities at some point will suffer because we are putting all the children in one place. Is it wise from a security point of view to put the entire population of youth in one place every day? Since the people on the edge of the tax base receive poorer service should LMT receive a discount in their taxes? The option for LMT is to develop and send their children to great Charter Schools closer to home at a much higher per pupil cost to the central tax base. The consideration of what to do should be what is best for the kids. Centralizing services does not meet that criteria-- it only shows the damage that selfishness can bring to a community.

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