In the coming weeks and months, the Hatboro-Horsham School Board will need to answer a question that serves as a deciding factor for the future of the district's educational facilities.
"What will the size of Hallowell be" was the inquiry Superintendent Curtis Griffin reiterated several times during Monday's school board work session.
It's a question yet to be determined as the district awaits transfer, tentatively in May, of the former Horsham Memorial Army Reserve Center, which is situated on Route 611 in Horsham. The government-owned property is the future home of Hallowell Elementary School.
The existing nearly 52-year-old school would be demolished and a new school would be built where the federal government's brick buildings currently stand.
"Depending on the size of Hallowell, that will dictate how many elementary schools we keep open and how many we close," he said.
But, before a new school could open its doors, Griffin said "there's an incredible process" that must first unfold.
"To undertake something like this and actually begin in this year alone it would not be until June 2015 that we would begin to occupy that particular building," Griffin said, adding that a "more realistic" goal would be for the school to be ready by June 2016.
Paying for Hallowell
Bob Reichert, the district's director of business affairs, estimated a $15 million to $20 million price tag for the new school, depending on the size the district ultimately approves. In plans prepared by EI Associates last fall, the smallest model, for 450 students, would mean a 43,358-square-foot school, while the outline for 600 students would net a 50,227-square-foot building. In the last model, for 750 students, a 59,652-square-foot facility is envisioned.
"These are just sketches," Griffin said. "There is nothing in stone. Nothing is a must."
Regardless of which model the district advances, Reichert said following the meeting that the board must be "conscious of the Act 1 index," which, for this budget cycle means a tax increase of 1.7 percent or less.
To help cover the expense of building a new school, Reichert said the district has been "planning for several years on a systematic, strategic approach," which involves refinancing bonds, keeping money in reserves and expiring some existing debt service.
Griffin echoed similar sentiments during Monday's meeting.
"It’s not something we want to burden our taxpayers with, increased taxes," Griffin said. "Our debt service will be diminishing. That will give us the opportunity to take on new debt service without having to increase our taxes in the process."
Enrollment and planning for the future
District-wide, Hatboro-Horsham's enrollment has continued to decline since at least 2002-2003, according to a presentation Griffin shared Monday. Based on his numbers, 5,558 students were enrolled in 2002-2003 as compared to 5,362 in 2007-2008 and 4,901 in the 2012-2013 school year.
At the elementary level, enrollment has declined by more than 15 percent. A total of 2,037 students are enrolled for the 2012-2013 school year at all of the five elementary schools combined as compared to 2,249 in 2007-2008 and 2,413 in 2002-2003.
At Hallowell, 279 students are enrolled this school year, as compared to 393 during the 2006-2007 school year.
In conjunction with reviewing enrollment trends, Griffin said the district is also considering two separate demographic studies. One shows a continued decrease in enrollment, while the other shows an increase, he said.
"It's not about tomorrow," Griffin said. "It's about looking long-term about how we see some of the demographics."
In one of the evaluations, from Decision Insite, Griffin said the enrollment impact firm estimated 500 new dwelling units throughout Hatboro and Horsham. However, as part of the redevelopment plan for 862 acres of shuttered Willow Grove air base,
In the next several months, Griffin said the board will talk more about Hallowell plans and could be ready to make a decision in six months.
Throughout the early part of the process, he said district officials will be meeting with Wissahickon School District representatives to see how that district handled its recent building projects. Griffin said discussions with four other districts regarding approaches for building projects would follow.
"We need to start to really study this," Griffin said. "The numbers are clear ... the size of Hallowell will dictate our next step."