Lehigh Valley

Preservation advocate recommends more public information on options for Nitschmann Middle School

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Thomas Hylton, an advocate for preservation, challenged Bethlehem Area School District to gather and publish "sufficient information to allow an intelligent discussion regarding the renovation or replacement" of 90-year-old Nitschmann Middle School.

Hylton, who resides in Pottstown, is president of "Save Our Lands, Save Our Cities," a 15-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing Pennsylvania's traditional towns and countryside. That includes renovating existing schools, rather than replacing them with new schools, which Hylton said usually costs much more money.

Stressing that he was speaking for himself and no other person or organization, on Monday night Hylton stood before Bethlehem's school board and asked it to provide district residents with a thorough report about the future of the middle school, including "a compelling argument for whatever course of action you propose."

He added: "If you are determined to avoid a referendum, you could at least schedule a public hearing on your proposal and wait 30 days after the hearing before making a final decision."

Hylton previously has gone on record saying a new Nitschmann Middle School is not needed.  And he said the school board has gone on record that it will not conduct a public referendum on a new or renovated Nitschmann.

Hylton suggested the district do a "reader-friendly" feasibility study of the best options for Nitschmann. He said it also should pay to publish results of that study as a tabloid in local newspapers -- at a cost he estimated at not more than $10,000 -- to "help foster informed, responsible citizenship."

He suggested that report address how a $33 million renovation or a $61 million renovation would improve Nitschmann's educational program.

Hylton said he participated in an Oct. 1 public tour of the middle school, followed by a Power Point presentation of options for its future. For most options presented, he said, no description whatsoever was offered "of exactly what would be done for these enormous sums of money." He said one option being considered would make the school 30 percent larger for the same number of students.

The school district was about to make a decision  about Nitschmann in 2008, when the economy fell apart, explained Dr. Joseph Roy, Bethlehem's superintendent. Several months ago the district decided to take another look at the school. He said no decision has been made on how the district will proceed, but added: "A lot of the work has already been done. We're not starting from scratch."

Roy explained the next step will be for the district's facilities committee to take a more in-depth look at three options: two involving renovating the school and the third requiring a new building. He said that committee will meet in public at 6 p.m. Jan. 7 in the district's Education Center.

The school board may make a decision on renovating or replacing Nitschmann by February, according to Roy, and work would begin by June 2015.

Building a new Nitschmann would cost $64 million, Hylton reminded the school board, but extending its life by turning it into an energy-efficient school would only cost $15.4 million.

But Roy later said building a new Nitschmann would cost less than the $64 million cited for that option in 2008 "because I believe we can do a smaller building than they were talking about then."

After the board meeting, Hylton said the district can replace "everything that needs to be replaced" at Nitschmann for $15.4 million. "The next option they're talking about is twice as much money and they don't say what they're doing for that," said Hylton. "Why do they need to do it? Why go double that without explaining? You'd have to have a dramatic improvement in your program to justify spending twice as much money."

Citing as examples Liberty High School in Bethlehem and William Allen in Allentown, where he graduated in 1966, Hylton said: "We build school buildings to last forever. Renovating is far less expensive than tearing it all down. And from an environmental point of view, the greenest building is the one you don't have to build. If you tear it down, you're throwing all that energy away."

Bethlehem's superintendent said since the early 1990s, the district has renovated 11 buildings and built seven new buildings.

Roy said the tough decision now being faced by the district is if it only renovates the existing school "you continue with the existing compromises."

For example, the superintendent said Nitschmann doesn't have a real auditorium that can seat anywhere near all the school's 900 students. He said adding on to the existing structure would come close to the cost of a new building. 

Hylton, who serves on the school board of Pottstown School District, said sometimes the worst enemy of school districts "is school districts themselves. You have to be able to justify what you are doing and you have to use your money wisely."

In 2005, a study done by Hylton's organization concluded it would be much less expensive to renovate Bethlehem's Broughal Middle School than replace it. A new school was built anyway.

On Monday, Hylton stressed the costs of that study were paid by "Save Our Land" as a public service. "We billed the school district nothing."

At a previous board meeting, board president Michael Faccinetto claimed Hylton was paid $5,000 for his organization's work on Broughal. Faccinetto was not at Monday night's board meeting.

In response to a question by resident Stephen Antalics, Roy took responsibility for Faccinetto's "off-the-cuff" $5,000 remark. Roy said that number was mentioned at a previous facilities committee meeting and he did not check the record before Faccinetto repeated that number publicly. "I have absolutely no reason to believe Mr. Hylton would be incorrect," said Roy, who personally apologized to Hylton after the board meeting.

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