To build at the high school or not is the dilemma facing the Port Chester School District.

After a failed bond referendum in December that would have created an addition on the Park Avenue side of the historic building, school officials went back to the drawing board to look at more options. Due to accusations the district did not solicit enough community input before, the school board is creating an advisory committee to weigh in on the design.

Although overcrowding persists throughout the district, at no place is it more of a problem than at the high school, which will reach maximum capacity next year. There are only two ways to fix the issue: increase the available space or decrease the number of students in the building.

Based on that rationale, the architectural firm hired by the district has come up with three broad concepts.

“They’re meant for discussion. They’re open. They’re flexible, but they’re what we think—through our many years of knowledge of the district—is a reasonable approach to what needs to be done to meet the criteria,” said Joseph Fuller of Fuller and D’Angelo P.C, Architects and Planners. “It’s a mix of both providing for the ninth grade at the high school and not.”

Option one: an addition at PCHS

Building an addition to alleviate overcrowding at Port Chester High School makes the most sense academically, said Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus, Jr. “The problem is there’s resistance to building anything at that place,” he added.

Still, Fuller and D’Angelo came up with two possibilities: an addition on the corner of Tamarack Road and College Avenue or one spanning the parking lot on Tamarack Road. Both expansions are similar to plans considered by the school district about a decade ago that were discarded for one reason or another. As expanding the current gym would be a costly undertaking and render the site inoperable for at least half a year during construction, the architects recommended renovating the existing gym without touching its footprint and instead constructing a championship-sized gymnasium at the rear of Park Avenue School. It is possible band and choral spaces could be included there, too.

“This is an option to build the gym somewhere else,” Fuller told the school board during a workshop on June 1. “It’s basically one campus anyway.”

As there is also overcrowding in the elementary schools, the architects drew up plans to expand the upper school at John F. Kennedy. Depending on the size of the addition, it is possible the district could close the Early Learning Center, where kindergartners through second graders attend classes.

Option two: new building at PCMS

Last year the school board debated relocating either the ninth grade or fifth grade to an addition at Port Chester Middle School. In the end, they opted to do neither. Now the idea is being revisited with both grades relocating to the middle school.

The existing structure on Bowman Avenue could become a seventh through ninth grade building with a championship-size gym built onto it. Besides the junior high-style setup, a separate four-story building would be constructed to hold the sixth grade and the fifth grade, the latter which would be removed from the elementary schools.

Another possibility is to create an addition at the rear of the middle school for fifth graders. This design was originally included in last year’s scope but removed because of cost concerns. A separate building would also be required to serve as a ninth-grade academy, but it would not need to be as large.

In both cases the new free-standing building would be opposite the middle school, where the Giving Garden is located.

“You can build this structure without impacting education,” Fuller explained.

If desired, the addition at JFK could still be built in order to close the ELC.

Option three: transformation of PAS

The final suggestion from the architects is to convert Park Avenue School into a ninth grade academy and build additions at JFK and King Street School to hold the displaced elementary school students.

“It’s exactly the right size for the ninth grade criteria,” Fuller said.

Some classrooms would likely need to be converted into labs or lab space would need to be built at PAS. As with the first option, a championship-size gym would be created at the rear of the school.

Through redistricting, the students who would have attended Park Avenue School would be split between JFK, which would get the addition on the upper school, and KSS, which would gain an addition near Upland Street.

Under this scenario, the ELC would likely remain open.

All of the design options include the renovation the existing gym at the high school, as well as an artificial turf field, a concession stand and a press box at the site.

Thoughts on the plans

While Anne Capeci liked the idea of building at the middle school where the district has the most available space, fellow school board member Carolee Brakewood worried about the pushback from the community, which did not like the idea of moving even one grade to Port Chester Middle School. Assistant Superintendent Maura McAward also questioned the feasibility of a 5-9 campus.

Brakewood favored one of the additions to the high school, but board President Bob Johnson did not think it a good idea.

“I’m not touching the high school. I got burned last time,” said Johnson, referring to the failed referendum.

“Smart man,” chimed in Tom Cerruzi, one of three community members to attend the school board workshop on June 8.

While on opposite sides for the previous project, both Johnson, whose son attended PAS, and Cerruzi, who attended Park as a child, thought transforming the elementary school made the most sense.

“That’s a smart plan,” Cerruzi said.

“I like that plan,” agreed Johnson.

Brakewood, too, admitted the idea had merit, as did the superintendent. Although Kliszus’ first choice would be to build at the high school, he said the Park Avenue plan came in second place and was more politically-palatable for the community.

Still, Brakewood and Capeci were not sold on the idea of eliminating an elementary school and how that would play in the community.

“These questions will be addressed by the committee,” Kliszus said.

“Let them wrestle with it,” agreed school board member Jim Dreves. 

Apply to be on the committee

Currently, the school district is soliciting applications for the bond advisory committee. The group is tasked with examining, reviewing and making recommendations regarding a new building project to be proposed by the Board of Education. The committee will not have any decision-making authority, as the school board has the final say in what they choose to put before the community in a referendum.

Once the applications are in—and they can be submitted in person to the district office or through email—the school board will choose a maximum of 25 members “to ensure a broad and diverse representation of community stakeholders,” according to the application. Members are required to attend at least two monthly committee meetings for three months and should conduct business in a manner that models respect and civility, according to the group’s charter.

The forms can be downloaded from the district’s homepage, PortChesterSchools.org, or requested by calling the district office at 934-7901. The applications are due by July 15.