Wyomissing School District
Abstract: In 2008, concerned citizens of the Wyomissing School District, just outside the city of Reading, prevented the needless demolition of well-constructed elementary school, built in 1952, and a historic high school building, constructed in 1928, for a new elementary school. Citizens defeated the $32 million proposal in a July 2008 referendum by a nine-to-one margin. The fate of the 1952 school has yet to be determined.
The Wyomissing School District was formed in 1969 by merging three small districts – Wyomissing Borough, Wyomissing Hills Borough, and West Reading Borough. At that time, nearly all the students in Wyomissing and West Reading walked to school, and nearly all elementary school children in Wyomissing Hills walked to school.
Within two years, the new consolidated district reorganized its grade system to curtail the district’s neighborhood school system. By 1984, the Wyomissing Elementary School had been sold and demolished, and the West Reading High School had been sold for an apartment building.
Two elementary schools at the far ends of the district, Wyomissing Hills and West Reading, served students clustered into grades K-3 and 4-5. Older students attended a junior senior high school in Wyomissing. The district thus transformed itself from a neighborhood-centered district to one busing more than 75 percent of its students.
Early in 2008, the Wyomissing School District administration proposed building a new elementary school adjacent to its elementary school in Wyomissing Hills and closing the elementary school in West Reading. This would mean all students in West Reading Borough would have to be bused.
Because of a recent change in Pennsylvania law, the proposal needed to be approved in a public referendum. In several public meetings, West Reading residents vehemently opposed closing down their school:
April 1, 2008
Building projects OK'd for ballot
Residents in the Wyomissing School District will be the first in Berks County to vote in a special referendum on capital improvements
By Darren Youker
Reading Eagle Staff Writer
The Wyomissing School District will become the first district in Berks County -- and one of only a few in Pennsylvania -- to have residents vote on a building project.
Monday night, the Wyomissing School Board voted 6-3 to hold a special referendum seeking voter approval for $37 million in capital improvement projects.
The bulk of that financing would pay for a $31.98 million school in West Reading to replace the outdated current elementary school in the borough. The remaining money would pay for other projects at district buildings, including a new roof on the Wyomissing Hills Elementary School.
Wyomissing will hold the special referendum June 3. No other district in Berks has held a referendum for school building projects, and fewer than 20 in the state have sought voter approval for construction financing, district officials said.
Seeking voter approval for some school projects is a new provision under Act 1, the state's tax reform law.
School Board President Daniel K. Snyder said it was merely the luck of the draw that Wyomissing was the first district in Berks to seek a referendum.
"Somebody had to break the ice," he said. "We had the need. All we can do now is put it on the ballot, and if the people support it, they support it."
Board members Gregory L. Portner, Kurt Althouse and Lawrence A. Fitzgerald voted against the referendum.
Following the meeting, Fitzgerald said he felt the $37 million cost was too much for voters to bear.
Some residents at the meeting also wondered if voters would support the referendum.
"I think that price is too high," said Leon Grim, a Wyomissing resident.
Ted Lentz, also a Wyomissing resident, said the district should have explored more alternatives for West Reading. "I'm not sure all the options were fully vetted," he said following the meeting.
For more than a year, Wyomissing has looked to find a replacement for the crowded West Reading Elementary School.
Current plans call for the school to acquire the former West Reading High School, adjacent to the elementary building, and five nearby buildings.
The district either would purchase those buildings outright, or acquire them by eminent domain.
Those buildings and the former high school would be demolished to make way for a new elementary school that would house grades four through six.
After that building is complete, the district plans to demolish the old elementary school and put in a parking lot.
Earlier this year, district officials backed away from previous plans to take a row of houses in the 400 block of Chestnut Street to make room for the school.
If voters approve the referendum, the district likely will have to raise the millage rate by about 1.79 mills over a threeyear period. That would mean an extra $179 in taxes for a house assessed at $100,000.
Board member John A. Larkin said it is impossible to guess how the voters will respond to the referendum. "I don't like to make generalizations on anecdotal evidence," he said. "It is a tough call."
Tom Hylton wrote an Op Ed in the Reading Eagle urging the proposal to defeated in favor of renovating the existing elementary school:
April 16, 2008
Wyomissing schools plan short-sighted and wasteful
By Thomas Hylton
The Wyomissing School District will seek authorization in a special referendum June 3 for $37 million in capital improvement projects, including a new elementary school in West Reading which would require the demolition of the West Reading Elementary Center and the former West Reading High School building.
The plan is short-sighted and wasteful. It should be rejected by the voters.
Like many school districts, Wyomissing has a long history of throwing away resources. When the present-day district was formed in 1970, the district owned five buildings: two junior-senior high schools, one in Wyomissing and one in West Reading; and three neighborhood elementary schools: in Wyomissing, Wyomissing Hills, and West Reading. Nearly all students were within walking distance of their schools.
That quickly changed. The West Reading High School building became a middle school, requiring more busing. The school was subsequently closed in the 1980s and sold for $95,000 to a developer who converted it into apartments. The Wyomissing Elementary School, centrally located in the Borough of Wyomissing next to a park, was also closed and sold to a developer for $135,000. The school building was then demolished for housing lots.
The remaining two elementary schools, Wyomissing Hills and West Reading, were reconfigured to house grades K-4 and 5-6. Wyomissing thus transformed itself from a neighborhood-centered school district to an auto-dependent district, with more than 75 percent of its students currently bused.
School district officials now say the West Reading school is outmoded and undersized. They propose acquiring and demolishing the former West Reading High School (now a 35-unit apartment building) and five adjoining properties to make room for a new school. When the new school is constructed, the existing elementary school will be demolished for a parking lot. Total project cost is estimated at $32 million.
Wyomissing already has high taxes. Each year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education compares what it calls “local tax effort” among the 501 school districts in the Commonwealth, based on the taxes levied and the community’s ability to pay (as measured by residents’ income and real estate values). On this basis, Wyomissing’s taxes are higher than 85 percent of the school districts in the state.
The country is apparently heading into a serious recession. The national savings rate has fallen from 7.5 percent in 1980 to zero today. For the first time since the Federal Reserve started tracking data in 1945, the amount Americans owe on their mortgages exceeds the equity in their homes.
Meanwhile, oil prices have reached an all-time high and are unlikely to go down as energy consumption skyrockets in developing countries like China and India.
Wyomissing needs to live within its means. Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education sponsored a brochure, entitled “Renovate or Replace,” in which Gov. Rendell’s top cabinet officers argue that renovating older schools can save tax dollars, reinforce established communities, and still provide facilities that meet 21st century educational standards.
Wyomissing’s own architect suggested in January 2006 that renovating the current West Reading Elementary Center and adding a small three-story addition would cost $10.5 million. That’s in line with state statistics showing that renovations are usually half the cost of new construction. Renovations also benefit the environment: It takes a lot of energy and materials to build a school. They are all wasted if the school is prematurely demolished and carted off to a landfill.
Furthermore, the district could increase its flexibility and the quality of its instructional program by returning both the West Reading and Wyomissing Hills buildings to a K-6 grade structure. As one educator points out in “Renovate or Replace,” the more years a student attends the same school, the better known he or she becomes to the principal and teachers. Parents have more time to form a bond with the school. And in Wyomissing’s case, more children can walk to school.
Unfortunately, when it comes to public education, creativity often seems harder to come by than tax dollars. In Wyomissing, the solution is not building new buildings, but making wiser use of the buildings it already has.
As Wyomissing School District officials promoted their plan, a citizens’ group formed to oppose the new school. The group formed a political action committee called Wyo Area Too Much Money. Prior to the election, they sent out emails and fliers urging voters to defeat the proposed new school, calling the plan a $32 million boondoggle.
June 14, 2008
School efforts called illegal
Critics of a plan to replace West Reading Elementary say the distribution of information to residents who must vote for or against borrowing violates election laws.
By Darrin Youker
Reading Eagle Staff Writer
The Wyomissing School District will open West Reading Elementary School to the public this month and explain the need for a building to replace it.
A June 25 open house will be the second one in the district's effort to reach voters in advance of a July 1 special election needed to borrow $37 million for a new school. The event begins at 6 p.m.
The district's approach, including handing out literature at the first open house June 3, has drawn criticism about possible violations of state election laws.
The issue is part of a dispute over whether the Wyomissing School District must form a political action committee, or PAC, to promote its interests in the upcoming referendum.
Opponents say the district is spending money in an attempt to influence residents to vote yes on the borrowing, without having to reveal the source of the money or how it's being spent.
Berks County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, an elections board member, said the district should form a PAC before distributing materials. That includes fliers passed out at the open houses.
"That has been the election board's opinion from the start," said Barnhardt, who did not attend the recent open house. "This is what we've been having a disagreement over."
The district has refused to form a PAC, saying the law does not require it to do so.
District Attorney John T. Adams is reviewing the situation after a request by the elections board. He has not rendered an opinion.
One resident, William Murray, said he believes the district is running afoul of election laws by distributing the literature.
"They handed out materials that were solely intended to scare people to vote for the project," Murray said. "As far as I am concerned, they violated election laws."
At the June 3 open house, about a dozen residents, guided by district staff, toured the school and received informational packets about the project.
The district wants to raze the former West Reading High School and construct a new elementary building.
Dozens of placards were set up in the school gymnasium explaining the need for the project, which requires voter approval for the fi nancing.
Dr. Helen Larson, superintendent, said the district is providing facts, not opinions, to voters in its handouts. West Reading Elementary is overcrowded and outdated, Larson said, adding that more room is needed to properly educate students.
If voters defeat the building project, the district must still spend about $9.5 million to bring the building up to code and make it handicap accessible, she said.
"We clearly can't compel people to vote one way or another," Larson said. "It is our job to tell people what is at stake."
Murray and other district residents created their own PAC called Wyo Area Too Much Money, which intends to distribute literature saying the project is too expensive. Murray said the group isn't against improving the West Reading school, but it feels the proposal is too costly.
School board member Jana Barnett said district officials are not advocating a position.
"Our goal is to have an informed electorate and let them vote it up or down," she said.
Voters overwhelming rejected the proposal at the polls. To read an account in the Reading Eagle, click here.
The Wyomissing Area School District has not yet decided on its next step. The earliest another referendum can be scheduled is late 2009.