Work To Begin On Schools $18 Million Plan In Pennsauken

Posted: July 29, 1990

Construction is set to begin this week on Pennsauken's long-awaited $18 million expansion of four school buildings - the first major growth in the town's education facilities since 1964.

The first phase of the project, on which contractors hope to begin work tomorrow, will triple the size of Franklin and Carson elementary schools.

Administrators hope the two 36-year-old facilities will be transformed from old-fashioned neighborhood schools where children eat lunch at their classroom desks "into modern-day, functioning elementary schools, with computer rooms and art rooms and libraries," said Martin Slater, Pennsauken's director of buildings and grounds.

The elementary school expansions are to be completed by September 1992, said architect John Kehr. The groundbreaking is only about a month behind schedule, which Kehr said is "pretty good," and should not delay the completion date. He blamed the lag on bureaucratic bottlenecks at the state Department of Education, which gave its approval for the plan last month.

A later portion of the expansion will add classrooms and industrial arts rooms to Pennsauken High School, creating space for 363 more students there. An expansion at Pennsauken Middle School will increase capacity by 333 students by adding classrooms at that building.

Pennsauken's schedule calls for those two phases of construction to begin in late 1990, and to be finished by September 1991, the start of the next school year, Kehr said.

Taken together, the building program "should take us through the next 25 years," said Superintendent Howard Phifer.

The elementary school project is the linchpin of the building plan, which the Board of Education began drafting seven years ago to ease overcrowding at the schools and to fill gaps in its "support facilities" - such as music instruction and gymnasiums.

With the expansion, Franklin and Carson will become the largest elementary schools in the township. Currently, many Pennsauken elementary schools are cramped, with about 28 students per class. After Franklin and Carson grow, Pennsauken plans to redraw school boundaries, shifting students from Longfellow, Central, Delair and Roosevelt schools to the new buildings, Phifer said.

By easing the crowding at all those schools, administrators will be able to use existing facilities more efficiently, Slater said, allowing for the creation of libraries and art rooms, which the schools now lack.

Though enrollments at the high school and middle school are at all-time lows - each are about 200 students below capacity - Phifer said total enrollment in the school system was expected to grow sharply over the next 10 years.

Pennsauken's population is becoming younger, he said, as senior citizens sell the homes they have lived in for years, and young families move in. The elementary school population is rising by about 3 percent per year, according to the district's records.

But even without the increased enrollment, quarters are cramped in all the schools - even the middle and high schools - because additional special- education classes are using more classrooms.

The entire $18 million building project is being funded through a lease- purchase program - a formula that circumvents the need to have voters decide whether they want to spend the money, as is usually done with capital programs.

For this project, Virginia-based Pacificorp, a finance firm, will build the expansions and then lease them to Pennsauken for 15 years. At the end of the term, Pennsauken will have paid off the project, and will take over ownership of the facilities.

After all the lease payments and interest costs, Pennsauken is projected to have paid about $36 million for the $18 million worth of construction. It is impossible to calculate the exact figure, Slater said, because Pennsauken could pay off the project sooner than expected when it begins receiving sharply increased school aid beginning next year. This would reduce total interest costs.

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