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Renovating Nitschmann makes most sense

Allentown Morning Call
Monday, Nov. 5, 2012

By Thomas Hylton

The Bethlehem Area School Board recently decided it will not conduct a public referendum on a new or renovated Nitschmann Middle School.  The board claims avoiding a referendum will save money.  More likely, the board realizes that voters would never approve spending $60 million-plus for a new or massively renovated school.

Nor should they.  Bethlehem does not need a new Nitschmann Middle School.  The 1922 Nitschmann school does not even need a total renovation, requiring the building to be gutted and completely rebuilt.  Rather, the district could offer a quality education for decades to come in an upgraded, energy-efficient Nitschmann for $15.4 million -- a quarter of the cost of new construction.

During the last decade, as part of my non-profit’s mission to preserve Pennsylvania’s neighborhood schools, I have toured older school buildings from Erie to Scranton.  I have met with architects and reviewed a slew of school district feasibility studies.  In 2007, I edited a publication sponsored by the Rendell administration called “Renovate or Replace,” in which the governor’s top cabinet officers, including the secretary of education, suggested that renovating older schools can save tax dollars, reinforce established communities, and still provide facilities that meet 21st century standards.  Along the way, unfortunately, I’ve found school districts statewide wasting millions of dollars for school construction they didn’t need and couldn’t afford.  Bethlehem is a prime example.

In 2005, I received permission from then-BASD superintendent Joseph Lewis to have the retired head of Maryland’s School Construction Program, Yale Stenzler, tour the 1918 Broughal Middle School with an architect colleague.  These experts estimated even major renovations would cost no more than $14 million, preserving the neo-classical building and keeping it right-sized for 650 students.

Instead, the district spent nearly $50 million to build a huge new school and demolish the original Broughal building.  The new school can accommodate 1,000 students but enrolls just 590, an enormous waste of space.

Let’s look at Nitschmann.  There is no need to replace its foundation, walls, floors, and roof structure.  Like other schools of its era – such as Allentown’s William Allen High School and Bethlehem’s Liberty High School – Nitschmann relies on massive walls and beams to provide structural stability.  Its basic frame will never wear out.

So what needs to be done?  I recently joined a public tour of Nitschmann and sat through a Power Point presentation by the district’s consultant, D’Huy Engineering.  D’Huy presented six options, one of which was far and away the most cost-effective, but was inexplicably pooh-poohed: The district could replace everything that needs to be replaced for $15.4 million and leave the building’s floor plan intact.

Here are the improvements $15.4 million will buy: a new, energy-efficient heating and cooling system; a sprinkler system; new ceilings and floor tiles; replacement windows and exterior doors throughout the building; upgraded electrical systems, including more classroom outlets and new energy-efficient lighting; new kitchen equipment and cafeteria renovations; new seating and auditorium renovations; new door hardware; handicapped accessibility; a newly-sealed building exterior with repointed masonry and new caulking; and many other interior and exterior upgrades.

So what’s left to do?  What is missing to justify spending twice as much for “partial” renovations ($33 million) or four times as much for “complete” renovations ($61 million) or a new building ($64 million)?

The presentation was remarkably vague about that.   The existing floor plan is inefficient, administrators said, and does not support the district’s educational program.  But educational programs come and go. The way we arrange our classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums and auditoriums hasn’t fundamentally changed in more than a century. 

Technology is evolving so rapidly it’s impossible to predict how the ideal school might function in the future.  To spend $45 million more than necessary just to have something shiny and new – especially in this era of diminished resources -- would be a travesty.  Bethlehem can’t afford any more vanity projects when students can learn just as well in a strategically-renovated school.







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