Chester Co. exploring high-school consolidation

CHESTER -- Chester County school leaders are considering consolidating the district's three high schools and building new facilities that would separately house ninth-graders, 10th- through 12th-grade students and a career center.

The idea might take years to come to fruition or it might never happen, but as the district grapples with declining enrollment yet the potential for explosive growth, the possibility of consolidation is an option they're exploring.

At Monday night's work session, leaders stressed that such a move won't happen any time soon, if at all.

"I look at this as planning for this district," said Chairwoman Denise Lawson. "Long-range planning."

Board member Richard Hughes said he'd like to know the cost of building a site that would house all the county's high school students with separate facilities for ninth-graders, students in grades 10 through 12 and a career center.

Lawson said she would also like to see a separate building for freshmen. She said research shows ninth-graders enjoy success when they are separated from the rest of the student population.

During the consolidation discussion, Gaither Bumgardner, the school district's director of general services, presented some estimates about the costs of the district's future needs -- expensive needs.

Building a new Chester High School would cost $39 million, adding an instructional wing at full Lewisville Elementary School would take $2.1 million, consolidating Great Falls and Lewisville high schools would take $35 million and replacing the Chester County Career Center would cost $22.5 million.

Overall, Bumgardner said the county's schools have room for growth, but places such as Lewisville, where he said the population appears to be shifting, are getting cramped. He pointed to Lewisville Elementary School as an example. "That is the one school we have that is bursting at the seams," he said.

Bumgardner said planned housing developments such as Montrose Plantation, Courtney on the Catawba in Fort Lawn and the Lando project could dramatically increase county growth.

Projections show Montrose could bring 10,000 residents over the next 10 to 20 years, and Courtney could spring 750 homes. Lando homes could be built within a year, he said.

But the district doesn't have the money to start building new schools and won't be able to until 2016 without a "significant" bond referendum because of its debt, said Harold Brookshire, the district's chief financial officer.

Although growth would help with the district's debt, Lawson said she's never seen that happen in Chester. "Unfortunately, historically, it hasn't," she said. "I've not seen any growth in 13 years, as far as the county's concerned."

The county's population is actually decreasing, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census.

Bumgardner said student enrollment also has steadily declined over the last 10 years, dropping from 6,800 students to 5,775.

Still, he said he thinks that will change with growth. "It's coming this way," he said. "We keep saying we don't see it. I do think it's coming."

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