The Northampton School Board met Monday, December 4 with a lengthy agenda.
To begin, Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik presented PSBA certificates of appreciation to re-elected Director Michael Baird for serving on the board for the last 12 years, James Chuss who served on the board for eight years and his last two years as president, David Gogel for serving on the board for 20 years with 14 of those years as president, and Robert Mentzell for serving on the board of education over the last eight years.
After a presentation on the 2022-2023 academic updates, residents expressed discontent with the district’s recent PSSA scores. Several residents implored the board to investigate the cause of low proficiency scores based on factors such as the effectiveness of current curricula.
However, other residents, board members and the district superintendent and assistant superintendent explained that the PSSA scores are a snapshot of a single day centered around hours of standardized testing that can be easily impacted by external factors such as home life, illness, test anxiety, not caring about test performance since it doesn’t impact their grades or ability to graduate, amongst others, and that these scores do not reflect the students and teachers within the district because they are more than a singular test score.
Kovalchik elaborated that 90% of seniors last year went on to success, whether that be postsecondary education, entering the workforce or the military, whereas the district’s PSSA results do not represent that achievement.
“There’s a whole lot more to how you measure success than whether or not you pass a test,” added newly appointed President Doug Vaughn.
During reports, Chris Haller from D’Huy Engineering Inc. provided an update on the Route 329 project, announcing that the general contractor and site subtractor have begun laying out the limited disturbance, so they can install the construction fence and are also putting up some erosion measures. Once that’s done, they will start putting in the stormwater management system’s basin and channels that wrap around the construction site.
Then, during public comment on agenda items, several residents voiced concerns regarding the bond issuance items on the agenda. Residents urged the board to table the three motions on the bonds to provide new board members time to review the funding parameters of the project and officially vote on Moore Elementary renovations. Several residents also agreed that the timing of the project is poor due to economic conditions and the large amount of debt the district obtained through two other recent major capital improvement projects.
Residents continued to voice concerns regarding the safety of the Route 329 elementary school site, enrollment figures, taxes being raised and EMS services now being four miles away instead of two after East Allen Township changed EMS providers to Northampton Regional EMS upon closure of East Allen EMS.
Several residents also accused exiting board members of pushing the project through hastily, which Chuss and several board members defended, expressing that the project is vital for enrollment projections, replacement of dilapidated buildings and that canceling the project now would cause the district to lose out on the money it has already spent on the project and project costs that will inevitably rise if the district puts the project off.
Vaughn disclosed that the school board is going to be touring Moore Elementary in January to assess potential renovations, and after that, the board will formally vote on the facility.
Director Kim Bretzik also brought up financial concerns regarding the proposed updates to Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School due to information concerning the costs associated with district responsibility being unclear. Bretzik also questioned what the full ramifications of pausing the Route 329 project were in order to provide time to consider the costs of everything and be transparent with the public about what the millage impact will be.
Newly elected Vice-President Kristin Soldridge attempted to make a motion to terminate the board motions listed under facilities from the November 13 school board meeting regarding acceptance of conditions of approval by the East Allen Township Board of Supervisors resolution, granting conditional final plan approval for the Route 329 land development and the construction contracts awarded because it was brought to her attention that “prior school board directors approved the concept without being provided a copy of the bids that were completed by D’Huy Engineering,” which she feels “rushed the board’s decision and limited their ability to make an informed decision.”
However, Solicitor Avery Smith informed Soldridge that she would not be able to add an action item to the agenda due to newer Pa. legislation pertaining to action items having limited circumstances that permit adding agenda items during a meeting and require that agendas must be published a certain number of days prior to a meeting for the public to review.
Smith also established that denying the issuance of the three general obligation bonds on the agenda would not stop the project or its timeline because it would just mean the board would not have financing secured to pay for the current work being done. As such, voting down the financing would not terminate the various construction contracts that the board approved.
Smith suggested placing her motion on the next agenda or holding a special meeting to consider her concerns, to which Soldridge called a special meeting for on December 18.
When it came time for the board to vote on the three parameters resolutions authorizing the issuance of the bonds for the district to incur non-electoral debt via a competitive internet auction to fund the capital improvement plan including the construction, fixturing and equipping of an elementary school, Bretzik made a motion to table the items but the motion failed 5-4 with only Bretzik, Soldridge, Joshua Harris and Brian McCulloch voting in favor of tabling the motions.
Vaughn shared that it would be a detriment to the district to not have funds available if the project is still moving forward, which is why he stated his intention was to only approve the 2024 series of bonds for $41.2 million to provide more time to consider issuing the 2025 and 2026 bonds for $37.2 million and $7.2 million respectively.
In a 6-3 vote, authorization for the 2024 bonds passed with Soldridge, Harris and McCulloch naysaying the vote. In contrast, the board voted 5-4 to deny authorization for the 2025 and 2026 bonds with Bretzik, Vaughn, Soldridge, Harris and McCulloch opposing the resolutions.
All other agenda items passed and can be viewed on the district website.
In other business, several residents and Soldridge suggested the board go back to two meetings per month due to how lengthy the meetings have been and requested that meeting recordings remain online longer than 30 days due to “discrepancies” between the actual meetings and meeting minutes.
Vaughn identified that both the meetings and recordings were previously approved by the board and disagreed with the need to hold two meetings per month. He also pointed out that the board and the public can offer corrections to meeting minutes before they are approved, and that reconsideration of meeting recordings would have to go through the policy committee.
Vaughn ended the meeting on the sentiment that he is looking forward to working together as a board and with the public to build a better school district.
The next Northampton School Board meeting will be held on Monday, January 8 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school auditorium, located at 1619 Laubach Ave.