POTTSTOWN PA – Back in the 1980s, as the United States and Russia were dismantling nuclear weapons under a treaty agreement, then-President Ronald Reagan encouraged a policy call “trust, but verify.” Reagan was willing to take the Russians at their word, he said, that their weapons had been destroyed, but he also wanted proof. To get it, he insisted that U.S. representatives oversee the work themselves.
Flash-forward to 2009 in the Pottsgrove School District, where the district Board of School Directors seems to have created its own version of trust-but-verify with its long-standing architect, Gilbert Associates of Lancaster PA.
Board members unanimously agreed last week (Feb. 10, 2009) to have Gilbert create three options for a limited refurbishment of the aging Ringing Rocks Elementary School. They want drawings and somewhat in-depth prices on 1) a bare-bones repair project; 2) a renovation and expansion that includes room for full-day kindergarten classes and needed space for existing programs; and 3) an in-between choice.
Directors trust Gilbert, board President Michael Neiffer emphasized, but they worry that the firm – which, like others in construction-related industries, is hungry for business – might go overboard in designing expensive options directors aren’t inclined to afford. So their verifying check against anything grandiose, suggested by board member Robert Lindgren, was to authorize payment for time and materials on the three options only.
Once they review those choices, which should be available within months, directors can ask Gilbert “to get down into the muck and work through (the renovations) with us,” board member April Kontostathis observed.
In making the request, directors announced their intent to hire Gilbert to complete work on the final project, which will include the up-front time-and-materials charges. When the architects first delivered their facilities feasibility study to board members last Sept. 24, the estimated total cost of expanding Ringing Rocks – complete with a second-floor addition - was $23.5 million. Directors have made it clear they’d like to cut the amount in half, if not more.
Besides saying what it would consider for Ringing, the board also attempted to ease public fears over future tax increases by flatly stating what it would not consider in other capital improvement proposals. Directors confirmed they would not pursue plans to expand Pottsgrove High School, add athletic fields, expand the district office, or add new space at Ringing for special education.
The decision to seek options for Ringing followed two public gatherings, last Nov. 11 (2008) and Feb. 3 (2009), in which the board heard comments over the need for improvements at the school, and concerns over paying for their costs in a recessionary economy.
Board members also have been reminded that, as far as paying for whatever option they select at Ringing, time is their enemy.
The district in 2006 committed to what Business Administrator David Nester described as a $41 million “forward borrowing plan,” as a way to afford capital projects without exceeding limits later imposed by state law. The district’s total borrowing ability under the plan will drop April 15 by $65,000, Nester said; by the end of 2010, it will decline another $380,000, and thereafter will fall about $500,000 per year. “The sooner the board can make a decision (on how much it must borrow) would be helpful,” Nester noted.