Looking over drawings for Neidig's renovation are, from left, Danielle V. Hoffer of Schrader Group Architecture, Kris Reiss of Boucher & James engineering, Neidig Principal Scott Godshalk, QCSD Chief Operating Officer Zach Schoch, Facilities Director Kelly Harper and Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner.
By Gary Weckselblatt
After spending three months developing options to renovate Neidig Elementary School, the Quakertown Community School District unveiled three potential design plans to the public at the April 5 Facilities Committee.
Renovations to Neidig were recommended last year by a parent-led Elementary Reassignment Committee. The recommendation was tied to the closure of Tohickon Valley Elementary School, which is part of a two-year budget plan to curtail a $4.7 million structural budget deficit. Last summer’s closing of Milford Middle School is part of that budget strategy, which maintains student programs and follows the School Board’s direction for the Administration to get the district’s “fiscal house in order.”
The committee’s recommendation fell in line with a 2016 Facilities Study, which cites the Neidig upgrades as a key step toward investing in repairs and upgrades of district facilities. That’s a commitment shared by the Board and Administration after years of neglect to its buildings.
With the closing of TVES in June, elementary class sizes are expected to temporarily increase in 2018-19 from an average of 21.4 students to 23.4 per class. Once the Neidig renovation is complete -- possibly by August, 2021 -- class sizes would return to their current numbers.
Since mid-December, a design team created by Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner has been tasked with putting the 60-year-old facility on par with Pfaff Elementary School, which was built in 2005. “We want functional areas, like Pfaff, at the best price,” Harner said in his directions to the team.
Currently, Neidig, a 45,700 square-foot building, has 400 students. Pfaff, with 85,000 square feet, currently has 440 students, and separate rooms for a gymnasium, art and music, among other benefits. Neidig doesn’t have those separate spaces.
When the new Neidig opens, it will have a capacity of 600 students, equal to that of Pfaff.
The design team, which has met approximately every two weeks since mid-December, includes Harner, Assistant Superintendent Nancianne Edwards, Chief Operating Officer Zach Schoch, Neidig Principal Scott Godshalk, Facilities Director Kelly Harper, Technology Director Joe Kuzo, David Schrader and Danielle V. Hoffer of Schrader Group Architecture, and Kris Reiss of Boucher & James engineering.
Teachers and parents have provided feedback as design plans were developed, and visited schools recently built schools designed by Schrader to share their opinions. The schools toured were Manavon Elementary School in Phoenixville and Mill Creek Elementary School in Bristol Township.
Neidig Math Specialist Trish O’Neill represented the faculty on the tours. Parents Steve Miller and Steve Orrison also toured the schools.
“There’s just no space at all,” O’Neill, who’s taught at Neidig for 16 years, said of the building. “We could really use more learning space.”
Said Orrison, “I really appreciate the conversation we’re having. To have this level of involvement gives me confidence that the right decisions will be made.”
With the Neidig student body expected to grow by 50 percent following the renovation, the demand for additional educational spaces inside the building are heightened. Those 200 additional students need more buses and parental vehicles to carry them to and from school, where a larger number of employees will need a place to park, with spaces already at a premium.
Bus stacking and parent dropoff and pickup already create major traffic headaches for nearby residents. It’s not unusual to see vehicles lined up from Penrose Street to Forest Ave. and onto Ambler, blocking the driveways of residents.
Renovating Neidig has its challenges, as the 14-acre site is located in both Quakertown and Richland, and the township portion sits in a floodplain. Richland, however, has agreed to cede approval to Quakertown, allowing district representatives to seek building permits in one municipality.
“If we do this right, we have an opportunity to really set up the Quakertown Community School District with a good, long-term vision of what our schools will be in the future,” School Board President Steaven Klein said.
Getting “this right” is imperative with pending legislation in Harrisburg that could restrict school boards in their local, decision-making process, especially for capital projects.
Senate Bill 76, known as the Property Tax Independence Act, would increase the state’s income tax from 3.07 percent to 4.95 percent and raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to make up the $14 billion needed to fund the commonwealth’s 500 school districts.
Property taxes wouldn’t go away, however, as districts would continue to collect to pay off debt service. But with the state controlling the majority of school funding, lawmakers are likely to influence more control on how that money is spent. In QCSD, the clock is ticking on whether the district might need state approval to take care of its own needs.
Schrader, the architect whose firm provided the district with an assessment of its facilities in November, 2016, presented three options for a Neidig renovation to the Facilities Committee on April 5. None of the options were voted on by the committee or School Board. Schrader’s PowerPoint can be found here.
Both Ted Wassmer and Jason Munn, Erie Road neighbors to Neidig, addressed the committee during Schrader’s 75-minute presentation. The residents didn’t want renovations to impact the “rural feel” to their yards behind the school. Wassmer also said he feared the renovations could lower his property value.
“I think it will be a benefit to the community if you design it correctly,” said Wassmer, who attended Neidig, as did his children. “It’s Important for our community, important for our district.”
He even offered to deed “some of the setback” from his property to the district.
Facilities Committee Chairwoman Kaylyn Mitchell thanked him “for your willingness to work with us.”
Schrader called the feedback “really great,” and said any plan chosen “would evolve.”
Board Member Keith Micucci was concerned with the cost of the project, saying he had “sticker shock” as he looked at prices ranging from $27.3 million to $28.6 million. Mitchell suggested “more research and evaluation to get costs down.”
Schrader’s 2016 Facilities Committee Study said it would cost $10.4 million to bring Neidig up to ADA standards, in addition to upgrading items like doors, windows and heating systems. Adding 10 classrooms to the site had a $20.3 million cost estimate. Getting Neidig up to par, or close to the instructional spaces of Pfaff, creates the additional costs.
Schrader said the new numbers are for a full renovation. His square footage costs are based, he said, on Philadelphia’s prevailing wage rates. If Bucks County was tied to lower Allentown numbers, the work would cost approximately 20 percent less, he said.
Schoch, the district’s chief operating officer, said the cost of the renovation, whether it was $20.3 million to add 10 classrooms or $28 million for a full renovation, would have no additional impact on the district’s 2018-19 budget. The district would issue bonds over a three-year period to pay for the renovation.
Godshalk, Neidig’s principal, said teachers were split between the options, but their main focus was on student safety, both inside the classroom and on the playground.
“We want to have the flexible instructional spaces that allow our students to learn in a 21st century environment,” he said.
Schrader is expected to address the full Board at its April 26 meeting.
Klein said he would like the committee to hold a special meeting on the Neidig renovations. “We’ll be voting on this in the not too distant future, and I don’t want there to be a perception that a decision was made in a vacuum without community input,” he said.
Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.