Inside Your Town

East Penn board narrowly approves plan for traffic improvements at Willow Lane Elementary

LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - A plan to switch the flow of bus and car traffic on the grounds of Willow Lane Elementary School was approved by a 4-3 vote of the East Penn School Board Monday night.

The district intends to have only school buses use the school's main entrance off Sauerkraut Lane, while all parents dropping off and picking up children will access the school property via Mill Creek Road.

Cars and buses will be separated by gates. Eleven school buses now serve the school and more than 130 cars –more than the district anticipated -- drop off and pick up children every day.

East Penn's plan, which will cost about $99,000 if all recommended improvements are made, will be reviewed at 4 p.m. Thursday by two of Lower Macungie Township's five commissioners, when they meet as the township's planning and zoning committee.

Such committees typically make recommendations to the full board of commissioners for final action.

East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger said the district's plan already has been reviewed by the township staff and engineers and it is acceptable to them.

Lower Macungie officials plan to spend up to $185,000 to make off-site safety improvements near the elementary school before the 2013-14 school year begins in August.

After East Penn is sure Lower Macungie is moving forward with those improvements, Seidenberger said he will announce to the board his recommendation to reduce the number of students that will be bused to the school next year. He is considering two money-saving options: that busing be discontinued for students who live three-quarters of a mile or 1.5 miles from the school.

If Lower Macungie commissioners don't support East Penn's plan or won't invest in making off-site improvements at Willow Lane -- "crosswalks, traffic signs, and crossing guards" – the school district will continue "to bus the kids," said Seidenberger. "We've said that since the outset."

But he also said East Penn will make traffic safety improvements at Willow Lane Elementary no matter what Lower Macungie decides to do.

"It's time we take action and move forward," he told the school board. "We have a traffic problem there right now."

Cars coming to the school now line up in an entrance way shared with the Lower Macungie Fire Department, which has a fire station next to the school and is concerned about getting fire trucks out in an emergency.

District officials predict cars no longer will be backed up onto Sauerkraut Lane when the plan is implemented. They hope that won't happen on Mill Creek Road, because the school's entrance road off Mill Creek is "two to three times longer" than the entrance off Sauerkraut Lane.

The school board approved the plan after 10 parents of children attending Willow Lane again addressed the board. Several expressed anger and frustration at being shut out of the decision-making process by the school board and the superintendent.

Parent Jonathan Berger accused the administration of "a major breach of ethics – a lie." Berger said on Feb. 25, Seidenberger informed the school board that a Nov. 27 walkability study meeting held at Willow Lane Elementary had been posted on both the Willow Lane and school district website calendars.

"I clearly remember it was not there," said Berger, who added some board members also were not aware of that meeting.

Berger did some computer research and presented the board with a document he claimed showed that Nov. 27 meeting was not posted on those two web calendars until Feb. 25. He said that Feb. 25 entry later was deleted and replaced with a March 7 posting.

"I demand an explanation," said Berger. "I'm not okay with this underhandedness and sneakiness. We need a change in procedures among the board and possibly a change in personnel."

Seidenberger told Berger: "I will be checking out your comments."

"We have asked time and time again to be allies," Berger told the board. "However, the board has created an adversarial and often contentious relationship between themselves and the concerned parents, who are the number one stakeholders in the Willow Lane busing issue, by refusing to provide an open forum."

Before Monday's meeting, parent Susan Coenen presented the board and Seidenberger with a 17-page report that raised questions about several aspects of the district's Willow Lane traffic plan. She said parts of the plan do not conform to guidelines and recommendations of the federal Safe Routes to School Program.

Even a couple of board members expressed concern about a narrow sidewalk used by children between a roadway and a fence, which Coenen pointed out in her report.

The administration refuted a claim by Coenen and other parents that children will have to cross up to four lanes of traffic to get to the school.

"Kids are supposed to get out [of cars] on the sidewalk adjacent to the building," said Paul Szewczak, the district's engineer.

Parent Donna Jurado presented the board with a two-page alternative to the district's plan. "I beg you to work with us," said Jurado.

Seidenberger thanked Coenen and Jurado for sharing their ideas, saying the district will pay attention to them. Indicating changes can be made to the district's plan, Szewczak said it is not yet a set of fully engineered documents.

But board member Julian Stolz, who voted against the Willow Lane plan, said he would like to see a new plan "that takes the extensive amount of information we received from the public into account. When you get the approval of the public, then you'll get mine. But until then my vote is no."

Also voting no were Lynn Donches and Michael Policano.

Voting for the plan were board president Charles Ballard, Alan Earnshaw, Francee Fuller and Ken Bacher. Two board members were absent – Rebecca Heid and Samuel Rhodes.

East Penn's plan for Willow Lane site improvements has a price tag of $89,356, not including an additional $9,226 estimate to possibly extend a walking path along the rear of the school. Before any improvements are made, the school board will have to approve specific funding after the district gets bids.

"My school taxes are going to pay for a $90,000 renovation of the parking lot because the engineer didn't do it right the first time," said parent Melissa Huffer.

"That's an expensive mistake." She indicated all safety improvements now being planned should have been addressed before Willow Lane Elementary opened three years ago.

Huffer encouraged Seidenberger to listen to the parents and "embrace their concerns."

"I'd like to express my frustration and disappointment with the way this board and Dr. Seidenberger have handled these changes to Willow Lane," said Todd Salomon, the father of three children that attend the elementary school.

"Parents have asked over and over again for an open dialogue and communication with this board to reassure us that a well-thought-out plan is in place. Having an informal meeting where parents can voice their concerns to this board and Dr. Seidenberger and get a meaningful response would have avoided not only distrust from parents but could have improved the current plans being implemented." He said many Willow Lane parents not only have been ignored, "but we have been called disingenuous."

Nancy Salomon suggested the school board has become a puppet of East Penn's administration rather than representing parents and taxpayers. "I've watched these meetings with disgust as you are rude and disrespectful -- not only to parents but to each other. Each of you has turned these meetings into a joke, with a parents' table, a children's table and a puppet master."

Seidenberger said 17 Willow Lane parents 17 volunteered to serve on a committee being set up by with Anthony Moyer, principal at Willow Lane, to work on ensuring safety of children going to and from school. "He will be picking a team of parents very soon, now that we are moving forward." He predicted that committee will be started within two weeks.

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