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Mount Penn officials looking to move forward with Antietam to solve flood woes

Mount Penn officials say they’re focused on moving forward after ending a dispute with the district over permitting requirements stemming from the Antietam School District’s plan to use Mount Penn Primary Center as a high school.

“Cooler heads prevailed,” Councilman Michael Kindlick said, “We had a sit-down this morning where everyone discussed viable options.”

The district has been seeking a long-term solution for relocating 600 students after a summer flood left the district’s middle senior high school uninhabitable.

The district’s plan involves renovating the primary center to house grades nine through 12, with the initial construction slated to wrap up in time for the building to accommodate students when the 2024-25 school year starts.

The viability of that plan comes down to whether the district can secure the permitting needed to start construction on time — a matter that has caused friction between borough officials who are legally bound to conduct a thorough review, and district administrators aiming to ensure students aren’t forced to attend class online for lack of an adequate building.

But relations between the two parties have thawed.

After a closed-door session Monday mediated by state Sen. Judy Schwank and Rep. Mark Rozzi, district and borough officials released a joint statement declaring confidence that classes will be held in person next year.

What was discussed in that meeting, the reasons for past disputes and the borough’s plans now were the subject of a public comment session held Monday night by the borough.

About 40 residents and students asked questions and voiced concerns over being repeatedly faced with the possibility of attending classes from behind a screen.

Mount Penn officials told residents they’d resolved a recent disagreement over a borough-required study that would analyze the impact of school traffic on the area around the primary center.

Antietam Superintendent Dr. Heidi Rochlin raised concerns last week that the study couldn’t be finished in time for construction to begin as scheduled, meaning high school classes would have to shift online until the delays were resolved.

Borough manager Hunter Ahrens said that after a legal review, the borough has determined that the district can begin construction on parts of the center that don’t affect the building’s student capacity — such as roof renovations — meaning the district’s timetable can proceed.

“Building permits that would come later for anything that relates to student occupancy or traffic impact would be given on the condition of a successful traffic study,” Ahrens said.

Mount Penn Borough Manager Hunter Ahrens explains the technical details behind the zoning process during a special borough council meeting Monday night to inform the public about progress made with zoning and traffic study issues related to the reconfiguration of Antietam School District buildings due to major flooding last summer. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Mount Penn Borough Manager Hunter Ahrens explains the technical details behind the zoning process during a special borough council meeting Monday night to inform the public about progress made with zoning and traffic study issues related to the reconfiguration of Antietam School District buildings due to major flooding last summer. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

He noted that any improvements that the traffic study might suggest, such as painting crosswalks or changing traffic light timing, could be required as a condition for the use of the building.

The borough has scheduled a March 13 zoning hearing on the district’s request for a special exception to use the primary center as a high school.

Disparaging comments

Several residents took issue with what they called disparaging comments about the district posted by a zoning hearing board member on social media.

They wondered whether the biases expressed by zoning hearing board members would affect their judgment on issues related to the district.

Residents also took issue with what they said were offensive comments made by Mayor Ryan Maurer.

“Everybody needs to stop bashing each other and work together as a team,” Councilman Richard Lombardo said.

Several other council members made similar comments.

Maurer apologized for his comments.

“I had a very rough day, I saw a comment that I felt was defamatory towards the borough, and I reacted in a way I shouldn’t have,” Maurer said. “I do sincerely apologize. I especially apologize to the students, who have had to wade through all this … I can respect your frustration.”

Mount Penn Mayor Ryan T. Maurer issues a public apology over comments he had made on social media during a special meeting of borough council Monday night. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Mount Penn Mayor Ryan T. Maurer issues a public apology over comments he had made on social media during a special meeting of borough council Monday night. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

Officials noted that alternates could be appointed to the zoning board.

Several residents said it seemed as if council was impeding the district’s plans to have kids back in school.

Council President Troy Goodman stressed that council has never acted out of malice, and the borough officials’ sole intent is to follow the law when it comes to the building permitting process.

“I am not here to attack the students,” Goodman said. “My son, my daughter graduated from this school. I’ve been bleeding orange and black, I love this school.”

Mount Penn Borough Council President Troy Goodman, right, and Mayor Ryan T. Maurer read over a printout of social media comments that raised concern with meeting attendees about the zoning board's impartiality regarding zoning and traffic study issues related to the reconfiguration of Antietam School District buildings due to major flooding last summer. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Mount Penn Borough Council President Troy Goodman, right, and Mayor Ryan T. Maurer read over a printout of social media comments that raised concern with meeting attendees about the zoning board’s impartiality regarding zoning and traffic study issues related to the reconfiguration of Antietam School District buildings due to major flooding last summer. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

He said that the district and the borough won’t always see eye to eye, especially when navigating through such an unprecedented situation.

“The district’s been building this airplane while it’s flying, there’s a lot of moving parts,” Goodman said. “And they haven’t been through this, but we haven’t either.”

Goodman said he Is always willing to sit down and speak with any school official.

“We have never stopped our attempts to work with the district,” he said.

Parent Rachel Constein wondered how families were supposed to have any assurance that students wouldn’t be relegated to online learning if issues arise in the future.

“How are we supposed to know that in two weeks, three weeks, six months before school starts, it’s not going to be the same thing,” Constein asked council.

Officials said that while it’s impossible to make predictions, they are committed to supporting the school district.

Councilman Michael Kindlick noted that the borough has drafted letters supporting the district’s planned uses for the primary center and the Mount Penn elementary center.

A vote on approving those letters is on the agenda for a borough meeting Tuesday night.

Borough officials also noted that Schwank and Rozzi have agreed to mediate any future conversations on issues between the borough and district as needed.

“Let’s move forward, let’s stop with all the criticism, I know people hang onto resentment, but all that’s going to do is kill you,” Goodman said.


Source: Berkshire mont

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