Three hours after being sworn in as members of the Upper Perkiomen School Board on Monday, the newcomers joined with two other directors to halt construction of a controversial new middle school that already has cost the district $7.8 million of taxpayer money.
"That's what we were elected to do," said Melanie Cunningham, who with her son Stephen Cunningham and James Glackin made stopping the $58 million middle school project a major platform in their campaigns.
Kerry Drake, an incumbent who also ran in November, and Raeann Hofkin made the vote 5-4 to suspend the project, which was already underway. Drake was elected board president.
The Nov. 7 election in the 3,300-student Montgomery County district represented a voter backlash against the building plan, which many feared would send property taxes through the roof. The district maintained that middle school enrollment was expected to grow and the current 58-year-old building already has been expanded or renovated five times.
About 300 people attended the meeting, and many of the nearly three dozen people who spoke supported the project, which has been under construction for two months. It was expected to be finished by September 2019.
Hope Manion, an outspoken supporter of the new school, said the decision to pull the plug was made "with zero information, which I find egregiously negligent … We have cut checks for $8 million. That's money out of the door. We'll never get that back."
Superintendent Alexis McGloin said contractors have been notified and the district was working to secure the site. Workers had prepared the site and started to lay foundation, she said.
McGloin had said previously that the board felt renovating the building again would be fiscally irresponsible and that the new school would meet the needs of 21st century learning. The building would have sat on a 43-acre property that the district owns near Green Lane Reservoir.
On Friday, McGloin said, "The board makes the decision to either build or not build. That is not my decision. We're moving forward with the direction of the board."
She said enrollment at the middle school is around 800 and expected to grow by about 50 students in the next three years. However, districtwide "we have a lack of classroom space [kindergarten to eighth grade]. We're using all of it at this point. There is none."
"We're going to lay out a plan moving forward," she said. "The board will be talking about that in the very near future."
With 30 percent of its taxpayers older than 55 and the project expected to raise taxes slightly more than 8 percent over four years, the school became a symbol of the economic struggles of the community.
Melanie Cunningham, owner of Titanium Finishing Co., who last year helped launch the anti-middle-school group, Upper Perkiomen Concerned Citizens, said the incoming board members asked two days after the election that the project be paused for 60 days to give the new board a chance to review it. But the board voted 6-3 against a delay.
A vote to delay was again scheduled for Monday's meeting, but the new board ditched the agenda and instead voted to terminate the project.
Cunningham said teachers, parents, and taxpayers would be included in future decisions on enrollment and other issues facing the district, something she said the previous board did not do. By electing her and the others by a comfortable margin Nov. 7, Cunningham said, the people already have spoken.
"They wanted to be included," she said of voters, "and there's no reason they can't be."
She and her supporters would rather use school district finances on school programs or to hire more teachers than to build "a new, shiny school," she said.
Manion said rumors have swirled in the community that taxes would increase 80 percent or that people would lose their homes because they couldn't afford to pay.
"It's a cultural divide between people who believe that taxation is theft and that we should not have to pay for other people's children to go to school and [those who think] public education makes the community stronger socially and economically," she said.