New high school, new faces mark the year in Montoursville

The main hallway near the entrance of the new Montoursville Area High School. KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its annual review of the past year’s major news stories.)

It was in with the new and out with the old in the Montoursville Area School District in 2017.

Finishing touches were being put on the high school construction project and new faces joined the school board.

It also was a year that saw the district taking steps to cut expenses.

The more than 600 high school students reporting to the first day of classes in early September got their initial look at some of the new facilities awaiting them.

Among the new and improved features of the three-story high school are classrooms, an auditorium, library, cafeteria, and art and music areas.

A natural gas-fired boiler system brought a vast improvement to the building’s heating and cooling system. A new entrance and parking area on the structure’s north end is yet another change.

The $38 million project served as a great source of contention for much of the past few years, with school board members and the community divided over the expense and the need for a more modern and improved high school building.

Although construction was on its way to completion this year, some of the rancor from the debate surrounding the topic continued.

Well into the spring of this year, the fate of an old and deteriorating portion of the school known as “Old ’31,” remained unclear.

Some people and school board members pleaded to keep in place that portion of the school, perhaps renting it out to a business or organization.

Others argued that it was a worthless piece of structure and needed it to be razed.

A 4-4 vote on the issue by the board in mid-April failed to settle the issue.

Two weeks later, a change of heart by board President Ronald Snell, who had long championed keeping “Old ’31” perhaps came as a surprise to those attending the board meeting that evening.

“My vote is for demolition,” he announced.

School director Karen Wright, who also had favored saving the structure, voted as well to have it demolished.

The 6-2 vote to raze “Old ’31” sealed the fate of the historic structure.

Prior to the vote, the board was informed by Scott Cousins, of Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates, the architectural firm for the high school project, that it would cost between $65,000 and $78,000 to raze that portion of the structure.

New faces joined the board in 2017.

Dorothy “Dottie” Mathers and Daniel Albert came on the board in the fall to fill vacancies. Susan Beery was elected to the board in November.

Leaving the board were Wright, William McCleary and George Hagemeyer.

The board also must fill a vacancy left with the most recent resignation of Denise Johns.

Scott Konkle, who represents Region 3 of the district, was elected by school directors at the December meeting to serve as president. He replaces Snell, who continues to serve on the board.

“We have a new board. I hope the operations of the new board are a little less contentious,” said Michael Kraft, of Montoursville Community One, a school district advocacy group.

Board member William Ruffing noted that the board no longer comprises a majority of those who initially opposed the building project.

“We now have people on the board without agendas,” he said. “I believe we now have an excellent board. We are going to be able to move the district forward. That focus was lost (the) last two years.”

In June, the board approved a $28.19 million budget that included a 0.32-mill real estate tax increase.

The plan included a number of spending cuts including two administrative positions, several teachers and other staff.

Kraft said the spending cuts faced by Montoursville are part of the fiscal challenges many school districts are facing, particularly with rising pension costs.

The completion of the high school project, he noted, will allow school officials and residents to concentrate on other issues.

“It’s a greatly improved facility overall,” he said.

High school Principal Dan Taormina said the new building will mean an improved educational experience for students.

Of the project, he said, “It’s fantastic.”

In early December, the only aspect of the building still unfinished was the auditorium.

Taormina said everything was expected to be completed by the end of December.

“As far as the project itself goes, although it wasn’t a popular decision it was the right decision,” Ruffing said. “In the long run, it made more sense than investing millions in the old school.”