The Eastern Lebanon County School District has embarked on a $38 million construction project that will modernize the 60-year-old ELCO High School building and add a STEM Center to the campus on ELCO Drive, south of Myerstown.

The district serves students from Jackson, Heidelberg, and Milcreek townships, plus Myerstown and Richland boroughs.

About 770 students attend the high school, which was built in 1962 and last underwent major renovations in 1992.

The high school is not overcrowded and has been well-maintained over six decades, but district superintendent Julia Vicente and high school principal Jennifer Haas said that efficient and flexible use of space to assure future students quality educations are the project’s major goals.

“We have enough space at the high school,” Vicente said. “It’s really about how we use it. We’re preparing students for jobs that haven’t even been created yet.

“So, it comes back to us to make sure that our facilities are not over the top, but are contemporary and what we need to educate kids.”

Over 60 years, as curricula, enrollment, and space requirements changed, departments and classrooms that are best grouped together have gradually become spread out throughout the building.

For example, “right now we have ag classes next to music,” Haas said. “Eventually, we’ll move art next to music, and have a fine arts area.”

Haas also cited the school’s emergency medical technology program, which currently has no direct access to the outside. Once relocated, “we can actually bring an ambulance in and have real world training.”

When the project is done, the high school will have separate areas for tech and science, English and social studies, and science, math, and business education. Teachers in each department will be able to work side-by-side.

Construction started in mid-July and the district hopes to complete all work by November 2024.

The project also includes the installation of artificial turf in the district’s stadium, at a cost of about $1.5 million. That work has been completed.

According to district business manager Michael Miller, the estimated $38 million bill will be paid primarily through four fixed-rate bond issues spread over the life of the project, federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants, and property taxes.

“Lately, we’ve been doing 2 to 3 percent tax increases each year, mainly for operations,” Miller said. “And that nets the district between $700,00 and $800,000 annually.”

Going forward, Miller said, about $300,000 of that each year “will be related to the project.”

Miller said that two of the four bond issues, totaling $20 million, have already been issued, before recent interest rate hikes. At the end of the work, the district will have the option of using cash reserves rather than incurring more bond debt, if the option makes financial sense.

The district is also holding down the project cost by using Doug Dresch, director of buildings and grounds, as its in-house project manager. Dresch worked closely with outside project managers on several energy system upgrade projects in 2018 and 2019.

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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...