Renewed talks of PCHS expansion heat up
September 13, 2016
Park City High School may still get its makeover.
Nearly a year after the defeat of a controversial bond campaign that would have funded an expansion of the high school, among several other projects, a committee the Park City School District formed this spring to continue exploring the issue is making headway.
The committee, which has been meeting regularly since March to identify what should be included in an expansion, is hoping to receive a handful of design options this fall from architectural firm VCBO. The district would then seek feedback on the designs this winter, with a goal of selecting a final plan next spring. Work could begin on the project as early as next summer and be completed by the fall of 2019.
Bob O'Connor, principal of the high school, said the committee's discussions have hit on many of the same considerations broached last year leading to the bond campaign.
At minimum, an expansion would require 16 classrooms to accommodate ninth-grade students, who would move to the high school from Treasure Mountain Junior High. However, a more forward-thinking approach, O'Connor said, could include as many as 24 classrooms to ensure future enrollment growth doesn't put a strain on the school.
"I think we're going to shoot a little higher than (16 classrooms) and anticipate growth," he said.
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As well as increasing the school's capacity, an expansion would include additional space for a number of academic programs. O'Connor said the committee has discussed building three new science labs and a medical lab. The fine arts and engineering departments, which have outgrown their current space, would also be revamped.
"Those two programs could be fixed just by pushing out to the north," he said. "And there's room to do that, so that should be fairly simple."
Athletic facilities, which played a key role in the bond campaign, have also been a popular topic. O'Connor said remodels of the basketball gym, which was built in 1977, and locker room areas are long overdue. Some schools refuse to play basketball games at the high school because of safety concerns, and opposing football teams are often forced to change in the hallway because the locker rooms are too small.
"It's embarrassing," he said. "… That's a sad state for Park City High School."
A larger question involving the athletic facilities also lingers: the future of Dozier Field. The potential move of the field — necessary to expand the high school to the west — became perhaps the most hotly debated aspect of the bond campaign last fall. Many residents were wary of relocating the field and a plan to create an athletic complex on the eastern end of the Kearns Boulevard campus.
O'Connor acknowledged that concern lingers about moving Dozier Field but said that expanding west remains a possibility.
That option is favored by some because building in other directions would also come with drawbacks. If a wing is added to the south, it would take up a large chunk of the school's already-scarce parking space. Expansion to the east is impeded by the Eccles Center, which would force students to make a longer trek between classes. Building north would require replacing the school's utilities infrastructure, significantly driving up the cost of the project.
"Going west made (expansion) easy," he said. "That seems like a reasonable option to me, but there is some loyalty to Dozier Field that the community has and some resistance to moving it toward Treasure Mountain. I'm curious and anxious to see some of the VCBO options and what they come up with."
Joe Cronley, one of the most vocal residents who opposed the bond last year, was adamantly against moving Dozier Field at the time. Now a member of the district's high school expansion committee, he said he is likely to support whatever option the school board ultimately chooses. The difference, he said, is the process.
Last year, many residents, including Cronley, were critical of what they perceived as the district rushing the bond onto the ballot. They argued the district didn't do adequate research and that school leaders failed to engage the community early enough (claims the district and supporters of the bond rejected). This time, Cronley said, the district has done plenty to assuage those concerns.
"I think the process has been much improved," he said. "Whatever the outcome is, I'm already pleased with it because I think things are going in the right direction. I think the addition of the communication director Molly Miller has been valuable. People feel like they're more informed and are more a part of the process."
Part of Cronley's optimism stems from what he sees as greater transparency than last year's master planning efforts. Minutes, agendas and videos of the high school expansion committee's meetings are available on the district's website, pcschools.us, and residents are free to sit in on the sessions.
Additionally, the district has established a clear timeline for the process and has posted it online. According to that timeline, the committee hopes to narrow the number of design options to three this fall. Then, in December and January, it is scheduled to hold three community input sessions, followed by a school board discussion of the project in February. The final option would be presented in March to the board, which would also decide on how to fund the project.
Construction on the project could begin as early as next summer using the district's capital reserves, and if a bond proves necessary, a vote would be held on Election Day in November.
"It felt rushed the last time," Cronley said. "Now that we've had a chance to take a breath and step back, I think the school district understands that the public wants to be a part of the process. I don't think they had as much of that kind of feeling a year or a year and a half ago."
O'Connor agreed that the district is aiming to better engage residents this time around, and he encouraged people who want their opinions heard to get involved as soon as possible, particularly at this winter's community feedback sessions.
"We need to do a much better job of reaching out to the community," he said. "We had community forums and the public was invited last time, but I think we need to take it to various schools throughout the district and hold smaller meetings and invite local school communities."
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