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Vo-tech school on brink of $52 million expansion. But will the school survive infighting?

Bethlehem Area Vo-Tech
Will Oliver
Plans to extend and expand the Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School require its three member school districts approve new articles of agreement by September or else the school will be dissolved.

BETHLEHEM TWP., Pa. — The Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School Joint Committee recommended that the school's three school districts extend the school's articles of agreement another 30 years Monday night.

It's a decision that could clear the way for a $52 million expansion — if infighting doesn't dissolve it first.

By a 7-2 vote, the committee recommended the member districts — the Bethlehem Area School District, the Northampton Area School District and the Saucon Valley School District — continue its operations into 2055. If approved, BAVTS would be authorized to take out a 20-year bond to expand its Chester Avenue campus to make room for another 300 students and six new majors.

Between the expansion and interest over the life of the bond, committee members anticipate the overall cost would add up to about $100 million. Under the proposed agreement, the expenses would be split as they always have — by assessed property values in each of the three districts.

Dissent from within

But that plan hasn't sat well with the Saucon Valley School Board, which has repeatedly objected to it for about 10 months.

Saucon Valley School Board member Cedric Dettmer said Monday the district has has paid significantly more than the other two districts over the past 30 years on a per-student basis — sometimes by as much as 200%.

"We are not opposed to paying for our share of the expansion."
Cedric Dettmer, Saucon Valley School Board

The district would benefit the least from the expansion as well, according to its members. While Bethlehem has had to turn away hundreds of students every year due to a lack of spots, demand for slots at the vocational school rarely exceeds Saucon Valley's allocation, according to board members.

Instead, he and Saucon Valley School Board member Vivian Demko proposed the expansion costs be split by a per-student formula. That could have lowered Saucon Valley's share from approximately 11.5% of the project to about 7.5%, saving the district's taxpayers close to $4 million over the term of the bond.

"We are not opposed to paying for our share of the expansion," Dettmer said.

Each school board will review

But their proposal found no support during the brief, 20-minute meeting of the joint committee Monday night.

The two Northampton Area School Board members and five Bethlehem Area School Board members recommended the school continue to use the existing funding formula. About six members of the public attended the meeting, none of whom commented on the proposals.

The recommended proposal now goes before the three school boards, each of whom must approve it in order for BAVTS to continue its operations beyond next year. While Bethlehem Area and Northampton Area are each expected to approve the deal, it's unclear how the Saucon Valley School Board will vote on staying in BAVTS.

Before casting her no vote Monday, Demko said she was voting in line with a majority of her board. But after the meeting, both she and Dettmer said they didn't know how the board would ultimately vote. The board is expected to discuss the contract during a closed-door executive session at the Saucon Valley School Board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

After Monday night's meeting, Bethlehem Area School Board President Michael Faccinetto criticized the Saucon Valley School Board for endangering the future of BAVTS over what he considered small potatoes. Nearly every regional vo-tech school in Pennsylvania operates by the formula recommended by the committee, he said.

'Not big money'

Over the next 20 years, the annual savings created by Saucon Valley's preferred funding formula versus the one recommended by the committee would amount to less than 1% of the $54 million 2024-2025 budget Saucon Valley approved in May.

"To me, that's an accounting error. It's not big money for any of the three districts," Faccinetto said.

"Ultimately, we're playing with students, and that's what the worst part about this is."
Michael Faccinetto, Bethlehem Area School Board president

If Saucon Valley fails to approve BAVTS' expansion — and thus the school's extension — in the next 60 days, the school would be dissolved and its assets sold, according to its articles of agreement.

The Bethlehem Area and Northampton Area school districts would look to pick up the pieces and find their own path forward, Faccinetto said.

"Ultimately, we're playing with students, and that's what the worst part about this is," he said.