Faced with overcrowding at its middle school and some elementary schools, the Lebanon School Board has given the go-ahead for a preliminary study to see if the recently closed Lebanon Catholic School building could help solve the problem.
At its business meeting on Monday, June 15, the board approved the hiring of Beers + Hoffman architects and Lititz-based construction management firm Fidevia to look at the suitability of using the building at 1400 Chestnut Street as an “intermediate school” to serve 5th and 6th graders.
The district will pay Beers + Hoffman $18,000 and Fidevia $2,500 for their analysis of the 60-year-old building’s suitability.
The main school building and three others sit on 13.9 acres of land, and are owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. The diocese announced on April 28 that the school would be closed due to “enrollment and financial challenges,” and has since listed it for sale at a $2.45 million dollar asking price.
The diocese had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy two months earlier in response to multiple lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by its priests, but it did not explicitly list those claims as a reason for closing the school.
Lebanon School District Business Manager Curtis Richards said that the need for more classroom space is driven by a large enrollment increase in city schools.
“When you look at us over the last ten to fifteen years, we are the fastest growing school district in Lancaster and Lebanon counties,” he said. “When I first came to the district, we were around 4,000 students, and I’m completing my 14th year. We’re now well over 5,000 students, I think it’s about 5,400.”
According to Richards, the middle school currently has almost 1,200 students and has been using mobile home-like modular classrooms to handle the enrollment surge. He said that several elementary schools are also at capacity.
“One of the thoughts — and it is only one of the alternatives — is, ‘what if we created an intermediate school, which would take 5th grade out of the elementaries and 6th out of the middle school?'”
“In doing so,” Richards said, “we would not have to add on to the middle school” and the district could “get rid of the modular classrooms that we now have.”
“There are other options,” Richards stressed, “but we want to take care of capacity problems at the elementaries as well as have a smaller middle school.”
When asked why the district couldn’t use the existing but unoccupied original Northwest Elementary building at 9th & Maple Streets, Richards pointed to the small, landlocked, densely urban lot on which it sits, its unusual design, and the cost of updating its original, 40-year-old electrical and mechanical systems.
“We don’t have the green space there, and we can’t get it,” Richards said.
Richards added that the open classroom design, something in vogue when the old Northwest was designed in the 1970s, would make renovation costs even higher. “It’s usually more economical to renovate than build new, but not [with the original Northwest building],” Richards said.
“All the reasons that led us to build a new Northwest versus renovating the old Northwest, all the same difficulties, are still there. With [Lebanon Catholic], we would have the space for students of that age” and “a better walking environment for drop-off and pick-up” of students.
Richards did not give a time for completion of the feasibility study. However, the Beers + Hoffman contract estimates eight to 12 weeks after getting the board’s authorization to start.
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