The Quaker Valley School District is forging ahead with a $23.69 million renovation and expansion project at the middle school after receiving recent approval from Sewickley Borough Council and little opposition from the public.
Quaker Valley Superintendent Joseph Clapper said district officials were looking ahead more than a year ago when they determined building renovations would be needed to accommodate students in grades six through eight. District enrollment, bucking the trend in other area school districts, has continued to grow each year.
"We're looking down the road," Clapper said, "predicting and projecting."
School officials spoke in detail about plans to revamp the schoolhouse and address space issues in a hearing held Dec. 21 to comply with state Department of Education requirements.
Prior to the hearing, Sewickley Council gave approval for the school district plans to move forward, just as the borough's planning commission had recommended earlier this month.
Twenty years ago, the middle school, then a junior high, had 379 students. In the last two years, Clapper said, the district has recorded its highest enrollment numbers since 1982. The middle school now has about 479 students, and Clapper said that number is projected to grow.
As a result, students are in classrooms that weren't designed to meet their needs. Walls have been installed to divide and transform science or technology labs into makeshift classrooms, and areas formerly reserved for small-group instruction have been reconfigured for large groups "simply out of necessity," Clapper said.
The landscape of education also has changed dramatically, resulting in expanded programming, Clapper said. Life-skills classes weren't offered until recently and the school's orchestra program didn't exist 12 years ago. State mandates, the technology explosion, drama productions, after-school programs, and middle school courses that weren't offered decades ago, such as German and French, all have increased the need for more space, he said.
"And frankly there's going to be more to come," Clapper said. "We're trying to stay ahead of the curve and prepare for that."
One problem seems to rise — literally — during late spring and summer, when high temperatures outside can send the mercury inside the middle school into the mid- to upper-90s. Clapper said roughly 65 students in the building have asthma or breathing problems, and some have been sent home during the hottest days because they simply can't be in a hot schoolhouse.
"We're trying to expect kids to achieve at high levels … and they're in an environment that is just awful," Clapper said.
In the plans
Board members looked at a half-dozen options, including building a new school, before settling on plans to renovate and expand.
Jeff Foreman, architect with New Castle-based Eckles Architecture and Engineering, said the project will add 27,000 square feet. It also includes features to enhance safety and security, and to update deteriorating infrastructure.
Workers will put in new systems, including HVAC, plumbing, electric, and technology, as well as improve security and repair the roof, floors and masonry. Additions will be constructed in three locations to include a new auditorium, and music, band, choral and orchestra classrooms. The old auditorium will become a larger multi-purpose room. The third floor will contain seventh- and eighth-grade classes with some separation as well as places where students can congregate.
The driveway on Graham Street will be rebuilt, and the main and shipping entrances will be moved. Parking will increase from 63 spaces to 76, eliminating the need for staff to park on the streets. Some of the glitzier features include new synthetic turf for the athletic field, a new track, and a wellness and fitness gymnasium.
Foreman said the plans will incorporate the best aspects of the existing building's 1925 neoclassical architecture in an effort to make the additions look as if they have been there all along. In response to concerns raised by neighbors, Foreman said he staggered what could have been higher walls and incorporated brick and limestone patterns and windows to soften the façade.
Incorporating newer technology, such as LCD projectors in the classrooms, is a must because the middle school is the only building in the district where teachers don't have built-in projectors for daily use, Clapper said. The middle school is also the only building in the district without security cameras — a "requirement" at all schools these days, Clapper said.
"We want and need safe, secure entrances and exits in this building," Clapper said.
Tim Frenz, of district bond underwriter Janney Montgomery Scott, said the district has issued bonds to finance the project, a decision he called "the most cost-effective."
"The district knew this project was coming years ago and restructured savings to soften the impact on taxpayers," Franz said.
From refinancing old bonds and structuring new bonds, the district will realize some savings, but the project still will add 0.50 mills to residents' tax bills.
Still, taxpayers who expressed opposition to the project didn't have qualms about a tax increase, but with the project's overall scope. Sewickley resident Dave Wagner told council he approved of the plan in general but felt the scale of the auditorium addition was out of proportion with the neighborhood. Wagner said he circulated a petition and found that most of his neighbors agreed with him.
Former school board member Mary Ann Wagner of Glen Osborne told district officials she thought synthetic turf was "outrageous" for a middle school, adding that the project -- particularly the theater wing -- appears overblown and too expensive.
"I agree it needs spiffed up — I'm fine with all the things that have to be done, the HVAC, the electric, the roof, things we've talked about all the years … but this project has taken on a life of its own."
But Marcie and John Viccaro of Sewickley praised the plans — particularly the artificial turf.
"If you sit in my backyard and watch, you can see the Canadian geese going to work, fertilizing the field," John Viccaro said.
The public has up to 30 days, or until Jan. 21, to submit comments about the project. Comments can be sent to John Sheline, board secretary, Quaker Valley School District, 203 Graham St., Sewickley, PA 15143.