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School board drives closer to Route 329 project

Northampton Area School District Board of Education drove closer to the Route 329 elementary school and education center project with key votes at the Sept. 11 meeting.

Before and after the votes, the $73.6 million project elicited a lively pros-and-cons discussion among school board members and the audience in the Northampton Area High School auditorium.

The school board voted 7-2, at the recommendation of the administration, to approve and authorize school board President James Chuss to execute the indemnification agreement between East Allen Township and NASD for the district’s Route 329 elementary school and education center project.

This agreement permits the district to commence earth-moving and related site improvements as set forth in the agreement. The school board further authorizes the district administration to carry out and implement all provisions of the agreement, including, but not limited to, the payment of fees and escrows required for the work.

Additionally, the board approved the conditional land development approval for the Route 329 project and authorized the administration and solicitor to proceed with review, revisions, execution and payment of fees associated with all other agreements and requirements to obtain final permits for the project.

The fees are part of the approved Act 34 budget for the project, and all agreements and fees will be included in board meeting records for ratification at the subsequent meeting.

Voting against the two measures were school Directors Kim Bretzik and Doug Vaughn.

“The indemnification agreement is open-ended,” Vaughn said.

Arif Fazil, D’Huy Engineering Inc. president and district consulting engineer in charge of the Route 329 project, said indemnification agreements are typical in construction projects, including those for school and municipal projects and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation projects.

“It’s across the board,” Fazil added.

Chuss asked if similar agreements have previously been done.

“We have done these for other projects,” Fazil said.

Vaughn said he disagreed with the language of the agreement.

“I would agree with you. They’re not willing to negotiate,” Fazil said, adding, “They have the authority to make us be responsible for it.”

Fazil and NASD Solicitor Avery E. Smith, partner at King, Spry, Herman, Freund & Faul LLC, both said the agreement had been thoroughly reviewed.

“There have been times when we came out and said, ‘We’re not paying for it,’” NASD Superintendent of Schools Joseph S. Kovalchik said of previous agreements.

Bretzik questioned a $1,800-per-month retainer that NASD pays D’Huy Engineering as its consulting engineer.

“It needs to come up for review. We need to have a vote on it,” Bretzik said.

Chuss asked Fazil about the rate NASD pays D’Huy. Fazil said, to his knowledge, the firm has not asked for an increase.

“Arif (Fazil) has been with us about 20 years since I’ve been on the board,” school Director David Gogel said, adding, to Fazil, “Thank you for your service, all your cost savings and coming in under budget.”

The school board voted 8-1 at its Aug. 14 meeting to approve advertising Aug. 22 and 28 and Sept. 5 for requests for bids for the school complex to be built on the 90-acre school district-owned land at Route 329 and Seemsville Road, East Allen Township.

At the Sept. 11 meeting, Chris Haller, D’Huy Engineering Inc. senior project manager, provided updates on the Route 329 project.

“On Sept. 8, a mandatory pre-bid meeting was held with five general contractors and eight mechanical, plumbing and electrical contractors,” Haller said. “The bids are due Oct. 26. The bids will be reviewed by the project leadership team Nov. 2. A recommendation on bids will be made to the school board Nov. 7. Consideration of the bids is at the [Nov. 13] meeting.”

Contracts are to be awarded Nov. 29.

Bretzik raised concerns about the cost of keeping Moore Elementary School open and proceeding with the Route 329 project.

In a nonbinding poll at the Aug. 14 meeting, school directors voted 9-0 for Moore Elementary to stay open as a district school and to determine building renovation costs. The poll was taken at the request of Bretzik.

Among the audience members who spoke, Maggie Kemp said the Act 34 hearing, held Dec. 8, 2022, called for the closing of Moore Elementary. Kemp urged the school board to vote to keep Moore open for classroom use.

Chuss made a motion to vote to amend that provision of the hearing. However, Smith recommended postponing a vote.

”I want to make sure that motion accurately reflects the law,” Smith said.

Chuss said other factors figure into the Route 329 project, which would replace the IT department in the Washington building, which dates to 1904; Franklin Elementary School, which dates to 1907; and the administration building, built in 1922.

“The educational opportunities at Franklin are considerably lesser, and if Moore doesn’t get upgraded, it won’t be equal to what we have at Lehigh (Elementary School),” Chuss said.

Chuss said housing developments approved for construction in NASD would potentially increase student enrollment.

“In terms of numbers, we’re looking at 1,800 units,” Chuss reported.

Chuss cautioned against doing nothing, referring to a Dec. 5, 1996, column published in a daily Lehigh Valley newspaper that claimed NASD had spent $1.3 million in preparing the Route 329 site for a previous school project, only to abandon it.

“Are we repeating history here?” Chuss asked.

“The school district is facing at the very least 1,700 housing projects,” school Director Robert Mentzell said. “What do we do with the kids if we do nothing to accommodate the tsunami of students that is going to add to the existing student body?”

“I don’t think it would be proper to take on the cost of the Route 329 project,” Vaughn said. “I don’t think it would be proper until we find out the cost of [renovating] Moore (Elementary School).”

Kovalchik said Haller will tour Moore Elementary and present an estimate of renovation costs to the school board.

The board of education next meets 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11 in the NAHS auditorium, 1619 Laubach Ave.