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Unionville renovations back on table

The school board voted to revisit a plan that voters have rejected twice.

The Unionville Chadds-Ford school board is moving toward a $62.7 million renovation and expansion plan for Unionville High School, despite two failed referendums when voters shot down proposals to borrow money - and thus raise their taxes - to pay for the project.

The decision marks a complete reversal from the board president's stated plan of action after the second failed referendum in April. And the board has again drawn the ire of the residents' group that led efforts to scuttle both referendums to fund the high school plan, which it has repeatedly labeled as too lavish.

School board president Ed Murray supported the $62.7 million plan that was defeated last November and again in April. In early May, however, he said he understood that voters had twice voted "no" - most likely because they felt its scope was too broad, and the price tag too high.

Murray said the board would take a few months to prioritize the elements of the rejected plan, and then would likely try to move forward with a scaled-down plan, making sure to add more classrooms first to the overcrowded school.

Less than a month later, however, Murray found himself on the short end of a 5-4 vote. The May 19 vote was to reengage MM Architects of Lancaster to move forward with preliminary engineering and design work on the plan, with no items cut.

"I couldn't tell you. I don't know what prompted the action," said Murray when asked what happened to change the board's plans.

"We should respect the two votes that were taken. It was my thought pattern that we should scale the project back . . . Everyone at the polls said they would support a $40 million plan. Most people said they would support a plan that was smaller, that only entailed classrooms," Murray said.

The board also voted at its May 19 meeting for its finance committee to explore the possibility of again seeking referendum approval to borrow money, also by a 5-4 margin. A few other items related to the plan also passed May 19, including one to explore fund-raising possibilities (by a 7-2 vote), and one calling for the purchase of six more modular classrooms for the high school, which already has 12 (by a 9-0 vote).

Act I, the property-tax relief law passed in 2006, requires school districts to get voter approval through a referendum if they wish to increase taxes beyond an inflation-related yearly percentage. Without voter approval, the district will have to fund the construction project under the inflation-related cap, a scenario that worries former school board member Keith Knauss.

"They can't live within the Act I cap and fund this project, so something's going to have to give in the future. Either the electorate will have to approve another referendum . . . or they are going to have to cut educational programs," said Knauss, who started Citizens for Efficient Education with fellow former board member Jeff Hellrung.

Both men have staunchly opposed the expansion plan for Unionville High since it was first proposed last summer.

Murray said he is "mildly concerned" about the debt burden that the project will put on the district, and hopes that fund-raising efforts will help. Knauss wonders what will happen if the debt becomes too much, and the district again goes to referendum to ask for more money.

"I think it's fairly self-evident that they're ignoring the will of the public," said Knauss of the school board.

"A year ago . . . I had no doubt that if the board came to the public and said they needed a certain amount of money, that the public would come through," Knauss said. "This board has broken the trust with the public, so it'll be interesting to see if the public bails them out in the future."

Voting for the motions to reengage MM Architects and to have the finance committee explore the possibility of another referendum were board members Kathleen Brown, Curt Baker, Karen Halstead, Corinne Sweeney, and Paul Price.

Voting against were Murray, Timotha Trigg, Edward Wandersee, and Therese West.