Midstate school district’s infrastructure woes highlight statewide problem

HALIFAX, Pa. (WHTM) – A Dauphin County school board learned this week just how massive the need to renovate or rebuild two schools is, without a clear path to pay for it.

We first reported on this in February when the Halifax Area School District started looking at its infrastructure needs. A far more in-depth study from architectural firm KCBA presented to the school board this week paints a dire picture, one facing districts across the state.

“Certainly, it has presented us with some challenges here,” superintendent Dr. Michele Orner said Friday while giving ABC27 a tour of Halifax Elementary School.

They start right at the front door. The school, built in the 1960s, isn’t nearly as secure as it could be.

“Once we buzz you through that door,” Orner said, “you’re in our school with access to our kids.”

Newer schools often use two sets of locked doors to bring require all visitors to enter the office before the school halls.

And that’s just the beginning.

Among the lengthy list of problems the study found, there’s no school-wide sprinkler system, HVAC and plumbing systems (at or near the end of their useful life) need replacing, plus the whole electrical system needs an overhaul. A classroom full of iPads and other tech can’t function on four outlets.

“It just, it goes on and on,” Orner said.

The other elementary school, Enders-Fisherville, is just as bad or worse. You can read the full presentation on both buildings here. Both need to be significantly upgraded or replaced, to the tune of millions of dollars in a district with a small tax base.

“The situation the Halifax Area School District faces isn’t unique across the state,” Orner said.

PlanCon, the state’s reimbursement system for school construction and maintenance, is currently on hold. No new money can be committed while a commission studies how to fix it.

“It doesn’t stop the need for maintaining buildings,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

The need reaches into the billions statewide, he added, in districts big and small. And those needs can only be addressed once the state works through a backlog of payments tens of millions of dollars deep.

Buckheit hopes the solution the commission is supposed to reach by next May relies on more strategic allocation “so that the districts that have buildings that are most in need will receive some funding.”

But it’s also possible, he said, the commission will just kill off PlanCon. “We don’t know what the future will be,” Buckheit said.

“We’re hoping that come May,” Orner said, “there is some type of definitive solution.” Her district is counting on it.

The next Halifax school board meeting, where the public can come in and talk about this, is coming up Jan. 24.

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