On March 24, 2008, I listened as the Elizabethtown Area School Board presented its plans for a new intermediate school to the Mount Joy Planning Commission. As the meeting progressed, I became more and more concerned regarding the proposal. Several community members spoke up to express their concerns. Thankfully, Vice Chairman Blaine Miller and other members of the planning commission appeared genuinely interested in listening to the concerns of those present.
While I understand the overcrowding situation the district is facing, I hope that the school board members will listen to the many citizens that have expressed their reservations. Until September 2007, the school board led the community to believe it was turning East High Street Elementary into an intermediate school and adding on to existing elementary schools. Now in the past 6 months the board has completely changed its plans. The school board has sent out 100 notices to neighbors it believes will be affected by the school. Unfortunately, many others (including those living in the immediate vicinity of the school) were excluded from this list. A proposal of this magnitude deserves thoughtful planning and input from various members of the community. Hastily pushing the project to completion will affect thousands of students, residents, and taxpayers for years to come.
The traffic for this school (with an estimated student population of 1,125) will impact far more than the 100 homes that were originally invited to the public meeting. Obviously, the bus and parent traffic along Groff and Ridge Roads as well as Sheaffer and College Avenue will increase dramatically. However, cross-town traffic will also increase substantially along smaller streets such as Chestnut, Mount Joy, Spruce, Campus, Hickory Run, and Spring Road. The smaller streets of these residential sections of town are not equipped to handle the volume of traffic that a new school of this size will require. Possibly a more important issue is the very limited access this proposed site offers. As it stands now there is only one access road (Sheaffer Road). Even with an extension of College Avenue, Sheaffer Road and College Avenue will both funnel to the same location at Campus Drive. This will no doubt prove to be completely inadequate to handle a school of this size. Has the board considered access from East High Street across district-owned property? Has the board considered dual access to the school from both East High Street and Shaffer Road to more evenly distribute bus and parent traffic?
In addition to inadequate automobile access, the new location is not appropriate for foot traffic in and out of the school. It is well-known that the neighborhoods in the proposed area have very few school-age children. Therefore, very few will have the opportunity to walk. Has there been a count of how many students will realistically walk to school along Sheaffer Road? I am aware that a good number of students attending East High Street Elementary walk. Will these same students be expected to walk to the new school? How many additional buses and automobiles will be necessary to get children to school? Furthermore, Shaeffer Road is very narrow and has no sidewalks. Has the board considered the safety of those children that will be required to walk?
The location has additional problems that will negatively affect the proposed school. This area is very damp with a high water table. The proposal calls for a bus parking area, an auto parking area, and a blacktop play area. Has the board planned adequately for the increased run-off due to these impervious surface areas? What impact will this runoff have on residents living down hill from the location, many of which already have draining problems? Has the school board commissioned studies to assure residents “downstream” that the additional run-off will not affect their homes? With the school in low-lying wetlands, have adequate measures been taken to assure the school will not be prone to flooding, mold, and other similar challenges?
I am equally concerned that this new school building is not the most cost-effective solution to overcrowding. Currently, there is plenty of school-owned property adjacent to the existing high school and East High Elementary. Some of this property is leased to the fair. Is the school district fairly compensated for the use of this land, and if so, how much is this compensation? A new school built adjacent to the existing schools will benefit from shared resources and infrastructure. By contrast, a new school on Shaeffer Road will require road improvements, additional traffic lights, installation of sidewalks, and drainage upgrades. Consequently, the district will force Elizabethtown Borough and Mount Joy Township to invest several million dollars in these infrastructural changes. Has the school board and the township considered these hidden costs being passed on to the taxpayer? How much of this expense is the school district required to contribute? Do the taxpayers understand the implications of building at this proposed site? I am skeptical that Elizabethtown Borough has wholeheartedly endorsed this plan. Have borough planners been involved in the discussions and have their concerns been heard?
As this letter demonstrates, there are many, many questions that remain unanswered. This project will impact thousands of individuals for years to come. Common sense dictates that the school board and planning commission not push this six-month old proposal to a hasty conclusion. Instead, it deserves a thorough vetting by the entire community. I hope that the Elizabethtown Area School Board and the Mount Joy Township Planning Commission will be sensitive to the concerns of their constituencies. Though “band-aid” measures (such as portable classrooms) will not solve the problem, they will provide time to involve the greater community thoughtfully and deliberately in this planning process. With time, I am confident the school board and planning commission will find superior solutions to the many problems this proposed plan creates.