DUPONT — The building looks solid, but most problems are subtle and out of sight, Pittston Area School District officials contend.
The roof sports multiple signs of recurring patch work, waterline mains are old cast iron and nearly inaccessible and the stained wall-to-wall rugs can’t be replaced without raising asbestos concerns.
“It’s just met its life expectancy,” District Maintenance Director Jim Serino said during a recent tour of the Ben Franklin Kindergarten Center
The school board is mulling the option of spending several million on renovations or simply closing the school and moving about 250 students to the district’s Primary Center, setting off a domino effect that would bump a grade at the Primary Center to the Intermediate Center and a grade there to the middle school. Superintendent Michael Garzella said the middle school could easily absorb the influx. A meeting seeking public comment on the idea is set for Wednesday. In anticipation of that, The Times Leader asked for a closer look at the Kindergarten Center.
The cornerstone to the original structure is dated 1960, before Pittston Area was formed by merging other nearby districts. A wing was added in 1991 that included a library, a nurse’s office, a kitchen and a combination cafeteria/auditorium/gymnasium. Along with that addition, Serino said, new roofing was installed throughout and air conditioning was added.
Despite the age, the building is as structurally sound as it looks, Serino said. The problem lies with all the aging systems, and a roof that has to be patched year after year. During the tour, a quick glance at the roof near the playground area showed shingles were missing and more patching would be required soon.
The original oil furnace is inefficient by today’s standards. “We spent $34,000 last year in heating oil,” Serino said.
Lights are similarly inefficient, costing $21,000 last year. Electric service likewise is outdated and would need upgrading, with new electrical panels.
Wall-to-wall carpeting in most rooms looks serviceable but worn, and the problem with replacing them is that the tiles underneath contain encapsulated asbestos, Serino said. They pose no threat as long as they are intact, but as the district learned in replacing carpeting in two rooms, “pull the rug up and the tiles come with it,” creating a potential hazard and requiring the cost of asbestos abatement.
Serino said that if the district does launch such extensive renovations, it will be required to bring the building up to code, particularly regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, installing more handicap-access facilities and upgrading electrical and water systems, adding to the cost.
There is no complete estimate of renovation costs, but Garzella and Serino said it would easily exceed $2 million.
Closing the school and bumping grades through the three other schools would not only spare that expense, the district would reap annual savings by not heating and maintaining one building, There would be no substantial savings through staff reductions, Garzella added, because the primary and kindergarten centers share a principal and guidance counselor now, and each school would still need all the teachers currently working to cover all the classes.
The move would have other advantages, Serino said. The Kindergarten Center lacks adequate parking, and the combination gym/cafeteria causes problems every day because lunch ends at 1:05 p.m and gym class starts 10 minutes later.
Asked how the middle school came to have enough room to take on another 250 students, Garzella, who became superintendent last year, conceded “I don’t know.’
State records show enrollment at the middle school varied little from 1997-98, when it held 765 students, to 2011-12, the latest state data available, when there were 729 students.
The enrollment decline may stem back much further, though. Garzella said that he can remember the district high school awarding diplomas to “about 400 students” when he graduated in the mid 1970s, while today “It’s around 250-275.”