Designing new school? Think about community

August 13, 2014

Canon-McMillan School District is about to launch two major construction projects. An elementary school in Muse will replace the current Muse, Cecil and First Street schools. And earlier this week, school directors gave the go-ahead for a new middle school. The new schools are part of a three-phase plan that will eventually include a new high school.

The need for new schools is real. Development in the district, which is composed of Cecil and North Strabane townships and the borough of Canonsburg, has been rapid and caused a sharp increase in population. Since June, 77 new students enrolled in district schools. The middle school, which houses seventh- and eighth-graders, is 47 years old and too small for 1,000 or more students.

The priority, however, is for a new elementary school. First Street Elementary is 90 years old, and both the Muse and Cecil schools were built in 1936. Although small, neighborhood schools have many educational advantages and are looked upon with nostalgia by former students. But they are much more expensive to maintain than a single building. Consolidating grades schools is not popular, but it is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

Total cost for the elementary and middle schools has yet to be determined, but it is sure to stagger many taxpayers. Consider that the 27-acre site for the school off Route 519 – after clearing trees, tapping into the sewer system, grading and other work – will cost the district more than $9 million. And that’s before a single brick is laid for the school.

The children entering the new middle school in 2018 will still be paying for that school with their property taxes when their own children are sitting in those classrooms. And so will everyone else in the district.

Assistant Superintendent Scott Chambers told the school board Tuesday night that a committee will be formed in the fall to discuss what the elementary school should look like, and the committee would expand to include board members and district employees. He also said that input would be sought at a town-hall meeting. That’s certainly a good idea, but we think the district should seek as committee members others in the community who may not be employed by the district but still pay its bills.

Too often in Washington and Greene counties, schools that cost tens of millions of dollars to build sit idle in the evening, on weekends and all through the summer when they could be put to good use by community groups, service clubs, senior citizens and Scouts. Our districts that do use their facilities for adult education classes and other community activities should be commended. Community use of school facilities should not be an afterthought, however; it should be part of the design.

Municipal governments and school districts work and think too independently. Municipalities’ need for community rooms, senior centers, playgrounds and parks could be reduced and money saved by working with school administrators to design facilities that can be used by both the schools and the people who pay for them.

Canon-McMillan and other districts planning to build schools should seek public input and discover ways not just to improve education but, in doing so, build stronger communities.



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