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Schuylkill County News

Blue Mountain Blames Design Flaws at Elementary West, Evidence Points to Careless Management

Blue Mountain Elementary West new school

Last week, taxpayers in the Blue Mountain School District heard two options to replace the former West Elementary building. Each will cost more than $25 million and likely could have been avoided had school officials been doing their jobs.

Blue Mountain Elementary West Task Force Meets

On Feb. 20, the Blue Mountain school board organized a second meeting of its “Elementary West Task Force”. This group is charged with plodding through the early stages of picking an architect, reviewing designs, and eventually getting a new school plan ready to be approved by school directors.

At this Task Force meeting, the public heard two options for replacing the failing Elementary West building in Friedensburg:

  • Replace a 1980 addition at the current site, remodel and remediate mold issues in the original Friedensburg school; keep Blue Mountain Elementary Cressona school open. Cost: $24.947 million
  • Demolish Blue Mountain West entirely. Close Blue Mountain Cressona. Build an entirely new school in Friedensburg. Cost: $25.8 million

It appears the District is leaning toward demolishing the school in Friedensburg and closing the building in Cressona, then building a new school along Route 443 at the site of the old West Elementary.

This is what it would look like if the plans presented last week are finalized:

Blue Mountain Elementary West new school

An artist rendering of what the new Blue Mountain Elementary West building would look like standing in Friedensburg. (Image: BMSD)

First reaction to the drawing is natural: “Ooooh, pretty neat!”

As natural as that reaction is, it should be expected. It’s a big new building and would probably be one of the nicer things in Friedensburg if and when it’s built.

And that’s the reaction that Blue Mountain officials seem desperate to cling to as the general public reaction. In an interview with the Reading Eagle, school superintendent David Helsel and school board president David Lafko said they were surprised at the “welcome reception” the plan laid out on Feb. 20 received.

Blue Mountain Officials Believe Everything is Copacetic

Well, it may be comforting to believe that the public is welcoming to the new school at Elementary West. It may feel great that they won’t have to endure school board meeting shouting matches about the cost of a new school and the constant property tax increases to pay for expense after expense at Blue Mountain.

But eventually, these guys are going to have to un-bury their heads from the sand and face the heat from a taxpayer base that’s waiting to read these school officials the riot act … once more people realize what’s happening.

Here are some reasons why the public is and should be skeptical of this new school plan in Blue Mountain:

Not-So-Public Public Meeting

Part of the reason they didn’t hear much blowback about this plan for a new school last week is when the price tag was announced.

The working class in the Blue Mountain School District likely wasn’t able to make the oddly timed 5:30 p.m. unveiling on Feb. 20. It was before a regularly scheduled school board meeting.

That’s a Thursday evening around dinner time for many of what Blue Mountain calls “stakeholders” in the district. Interesting term for taxpayers, honestly, and quite ironic. By the time taxpayers are done paying for all the new school construction in this district, they’ll likely only be able to afford ground chuck.

So, a great way to roll out what they believe may not go over so well is deaden the impact of it. Unveil the price tag at a time when you’re least likely to hear much feedback, especially from those whom you’re burdening with most of the cost of this school — young working families.

Is it really a welcome reception if no one is there to welcome you? Thinking a couple dozen people is a good cross-section of a district with more than 2,500 students is a great exercise in burying your head in the sand.

You can see how engaged the public is in this discussion. Check out this Facebook post announcing the Feb. 20 Task Force meeting. Just 7 Likes and 6 Shares … weak.

Disposable School?

In that interview with the Reading Eagle, Helsel told the reporter, “We were going to have tear down the new addition and salvage the older building because it was better built. That’s why this time we are going to do it right and have something that will last for 50 years.”

How long? 50 years?

Does that seem like a short lifespan for a school building? Should something that few could argue is a bad investment into the future – a school building – be some throw-away building that needs to be replaced in a current student’s lifetime?

Also consider this …

The problematic portion of the Blue Mountain Elementary West building was constructed in 1980. That means it lasted about 40 years. So, that’s 40 years for a building the school admits was poorly constructed and 50 years for a structure designed by an architect firm that specializes in modern school buildings. Let’s hope the Superintendent was under-estimating the expectancy of the new Blue Mountain Elementary West school.

Blue Mountain hired the firm of Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates to design the new school they appear to be buying.

Blue Mountain Elementary West Didn’t Fall Apart Overnight

It may not matter how long the new school should last if Blue Mountain continues to operate as it has.

Look at the condition of the current Blue Mountain Elementary West building. This slide was presented on Feb. 20, showing how a wall on that 1980 addition of the current school is poorly constructed. It shows two separate photos, one showing light coming through where there is missing mortar. On the photo on the right, you can see some sloppy construction and remodeling.

Blue Mountain Elementary West old school

(Photo: Blue Mountain School District)

Seriously, did Blue Mountain hire 4th graders to put these walls together?

The narrative out of Blue Mountain to this point on the current condition at Blue Mountain Elementary West is that while someone was fixing a leaking furnace, they noticed more extensive water damage throughout the school. This has led to mold and structure quality issues.

Blue Mountain Elementary West exterior cracking

In the meantime, the district has taken more potshots at the failing school building. Another scapegoat was the Dryvit stucco material. The school says it’s porous and led to more extensive water damage. It may be porous but with proper maintenance, it shouldn’t have led to the damage highlighted here.

Blue Mountain Elementary West window moisture

Just three weeks prior the start of the 2019-20 school term, Blue Mountain announced that it would close Elementary West. It quickly leased the suddenly vacant St. Ambrose school in Schuylkill Haven and divided students between it and Blue Mountain Elementary Cressona.

Zero Accountability

The district wants you to believe they had their backs forced against the wall at the last minute and now this, a new school, is the only solution. At this point, sadly, it may be.

But just look at the building in the photo above. And think about the school’s narrative.

Remember that quote from the Superintendent:

Blue Mountain Elementary West reading eagle quote

Blue Mountain Elementary West didn’t just suddenly get this water damaged. The design of the school may not have been the best or most attractive but it’s not the root cause of the problems here.

Over the course of time, improper maintenance and not holding anyone accountable for upkeep at the school led to it literally falling apart. If a building’s structural integrity is so compromised that it can’t be used or saved, it didn’t happen overnight.

Is that what will happen with this new Blue Mountain Elementary West?

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