Sunday, February 24, 2019

Exploring Edgewood Option: Public Input Offered

Photos by Evan Brandt
Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez and Business Manager Maureen Jampo address a crowd of about 30 people who want spent their Saturday morning learning and expressing their opinion about moving Pottstown's fifth grade into the former Edgewood Elementary School.

As a June decision date looms closer, members of the Pottstown school community spent two hours Saturday morning exploring the idea of moving the district's fifth grade into the former Edgewood Elementary School.

A tour of an Edgewood classroom and other facilities was
part of Saturday's Town Hall meeting.
Currently Pottstown's earlier grades attend one of four elementary schools -- Rupert, Lincoln, Barth and Franklin -- that were renovated over three years. Edgwood was closed as a public school in 2014 and is currently occupied by two education tenants.

Pottstown's fifth grade was moved into Pottstown Middle School, which now has 970 students in grades 5 through 8, making it the district's largest school by population. By comparison, Pottstown High School only has about 800 students.

The Edgewood building currently houses a Head Start program
and an education alternative program called Cottage 7 Academy.
Persistent behavior problems there have pushed the school board and administration to try several approaches, none of which have produced satisfactory results, and the district is now considering re-opening Edgewood and turning into a fifth grade center about 250 students.

Saturday's Town Hall meeting at the school was designed to get input from the public about the idea. It included an overview of the factors involved in the decision and a tour of the building.

A tank that is part of the steam heating system is in disrepair.
In addition to about 20 parents and members of the public, including Pottstown Borough Council President Dan Weand and his wife Polly, a former school board member, several district staff and five current board members came to hear what people had to say.

They were: School board President Amy Francis, Raymond Rose, Susan Lawrence, Thomas Hylton and Bonita Barnhill.

The next Town Hall meeting will be held Monday, March 4 from 7 to 9 p.m. and the last on Friday, March 15 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez highlights
some of the maintenance issues in Edgewood's basement.
Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodrigquez told the group the meeting was designed to listen to the community before proceeding further.

"It's not our job to convince you," he said.

However, some basic information was necessary to make meaningful community input possible. Rodriguez and Business Manager Maureen Jampo explained that two Pottstown school buildings need work, Edgewood and the administration building at Beech and Penn streets.

Heating pipes connected to the steam heat system.
Edgewood, Jampo said, needs repairs whether the district uses it for fifth grade or continues to lease it. Built in 1969, it has issues with leaks, handicap accessibility. and its main heating system.

A 20-minute walk through the building confirmed her assessment.

Even in the library where the meeting was held, worn and torn carpet was evident, and that room is currently being used by the Head Start Program.

Many problems exist in the building's basement.
Heating pipes in the basement need work.

The steam heat system for the building is old and has many corroded pipes and other aspects. 

Some of them may be coated with asbestos insulation, common at the time the building was constructed, and which is now known to be dangerous.

Removing it, if its present, will only add to the cost of the work that has to be done there, he said.

Water regularly penetrates Edgewood's basement
as the wet sandbag in the corner indicates.
Rodriquez said the basement has leaking problems, some of which is near some of the primary electrical equipment, next to which a wet sandbag used to stop and absorb water could be seen.

Edgewood is also home to two modular classrooms that are currently not being used.

Jampo said renovating them to make them useful would cost more than they are worth. In fact, they are so old that the district could not even sell them for revenue, she said.

Pests have easy access to the area beneath the modulars.
The good news, as far as the modular classrooms go, is that they are not needed if the fifth grades moves into the building.

There is enough space to accommodate all 250 children, if that is the direction the school board chooses.

Which is just as well given that Rodriguez confirmed there does seem to be a pest problem beneath the modulars. He was not specific, other to indicate they are "creepy crawlies."

Getting Edgewood to the point where it can be a public school building again will not come cheap, Jampo and Rodriguez warned.

Depending on how much the district decides to do, the price tag could rise as high as $6.5 million.

During Thursday night's school board meeting, Hylton, who originally introduced the idea of moving the fifth grade into the middle school, warned against rushing into a decision.

Rodriguez tells the tour there is no intention of using the modulars.
In addition to the potential $6 million cost, Hylton said staffing and running Edgewood as a Fifth grade center could add $600,000 a year to the budget.

Jampo said Saturday that in addition to the cost of running the school, with teachers, lunch staff and a custodian, borrowing $6 million would require another $250,000 a year in debt service in the budget.

Part of the problem, Hylton said, is that the district has made some bad decisions regarding the size of its
buildings, noting that the middle school was "overbuilt. It's a Taj Mahal." He also said the high school held more than 1,300 students when population peaked in 1979.
About 20 years later, the high school was expanded, but it now has about 800 students, he said.

Water damage from the leaking roof can be seen on the outside
of the Edgewood building.
"I'm leery of making another costly decision," he said, noting that the Johnstown School district, which has a similar poverty level as Pottstown, has grades five through seven in its middle school and houses its eighth grade in its high school.

He also said that having teachers follow students through the grades at the middle school, at least in the lower grades, could be a less costly way to deal with the discipline problems there which have so far resisted the addition of administrators, mental health counselors and part of the time of the school resource (police) officer.

Both Francis and Board Vice President Katina Bearden said they like Hylton's idea about "looping" teachers.

"The question is as a community and a school district, how do we deal with (the issues at the middle school) in the most effective, responsive way at the lowest cost?" Rodriguez said Saturday.

He said several options have been considered.

They include:

  • Selling Edgewood;
  • Opening Edgewood as a regular K-5 elementary school;
  • Turning Edgewood into a STEAM academy for the district's up and coming top science and art students.
  • Turning Edgewood into a Pre-K or kindergarten center and, as Hylton talked about,
  • Moving the 8th grade to the high school.
Each of those choices comes with its own set of changes and costs, Rodriguez said.

Cost was a concern raised by both Weands Saturday morning.

"I meet with people all the time who are considering investing in Pottstown and one of the points of resistance is always our high taxes," said Dane Weand, who pointed out that although many people blame "borough hall" for Pottstown's high tax rate, 70 percent of that bill is due to school taxes.

"Opening another building comes with high expenses and will reduce revenues from the rentals. I have no idea how the district can do that without increasing taxes," he said.
One of Edgewood's modular classrooms, at right.

He said the discipline problems at the middle school pre-date the fifth grade being moved there.

His wife Polly, who taught elementary school for 35 years and served on the school board for eight years, agreed. "We think by moving one grade things are going to change? Why would you think moving the fifth grade will cure the behavior problems at the middle school?" she said. "To me, this whole thing is just shadowing our real problems."

She said closing Edgewood saved the district money and allowed the budget to be balanced without raising taxes.

But considerations other than money need to be taken into account, said Elisa Rose, a parent in the district and wife of school board member Raymond Rose.

"The kids are coming from all different elementary schools and they are all coming together in the middle school. Maturity wise, and what they are ready for, is different from fifth to sixth grade," she said.

"Moving them to a fifth grade center would take some of the pressure off them of trying to be with the big kids and get to know each other and build a community as a grade before they move up to be with the big kids," said Rose, who is also a teacher.

Parent Rachel Zuniga agreed. "I am very satisfied with Lincoln Elementary School. it is a safe, wonderful, caring environment, but all I hear about the middle school is turmoil. I want to be able to keep my children in schools and maybe this would preserve their innocence a little bit longer," she said.
Bishop Everett Debnam shares his thoughts Saturday.

Bishop Everett Debnam, pastor at Invictus Ministries, said "we will have taxes until we die. Investing in children is more important than taxes."

He said the community has experienced "an inflation of frustration" about problems at the middle school. "What will make this better?" he asked.

Similar questions about effectiveness and how success will be measured were raised by Jamar Folly and Brian Swiderski.

Rodriguez responded frankly, "there are no guarantees."

Laura Johnson
"I don't want to leave Pottstown," said parent Laura Johnson. "And I think this might be really good for the fifth graders and its a good investment if the maintenance on this building needs to be done away.

She added that the financial considerations which are acting as constraints in this matter are due more to problems with how Harrisburg funds public education than with local decisions.

"The big problem with income is the state is not giving us what they say is our fair allotment," she said in reference to the Fair Funding Formula that is only partially applied when distributing state education funds.

"I think perhaps we should be channeling some of that tax frustration energy we're all feeling at the state," Johnson said.

Brian Swiderski
Swiderski said before deciding, the school board should look at the cost of simply adding more support staff at the middle school to deal with discipline problems and compare that to doing the maximum upgrade at Edgewood.

He said moving the fifth grade to Edgewood may give the district "the most bang for its buck" in terms of getting them better prepared for higher grades.

But he warned that the school board, and the community, must know all the relevant facts before deciding and that "metrics" will be needed to measure success.

"We have to start tracking stuff and not just saying 'I feel this' or 'I feel that," Swiderski said.

As for Mikey David Briggs, he feels a little apprehensive about going to the middle school and does not want to lose track of the friends at Franklin Elementary School.

He just wants peace. Have a listen:

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