Upper Perkiomen School District officials were so convinced of the need for a new $58 million middle school that they fast-tracked its construction to start as early as this summer - even before many of the details were made public.
Now, angry taxpayers in the exurban and rural district, sprawling across seven communities in upper Montgomery and Berks Counties with many retirees on fixed incomes, are sending a message to the school board: Not so fast.
Last week, about 300 people packed a state-mandated public hearing and sharply criticized the plan, alleging that such a large project is unnecessary and would send property taxes through the roof.
Officials say enrollment at the 58-year-old Upper Perkiomen Middle School, which has been expanded or renovated five times, is expected to grow from 780 to 847 by 2020-21, then drop back to current levels by 2025.
The construction is projected to raise property taxes by slightly more than 8 percent over four years, according to Superintendent Alexis McGloin. This year saw a 2.3 percent increase, following a recent five-year stretch of no increases.
Upper Perkiomen's property tax rate is currently fourth-lowest in Montgomery County, but about 30 percent of its taxpayers are older than 55 and ill-equipped to handle tax increases, project opponents say.
"It's not a really rich area," said Melanie Cunningham, owner of Titanium Finishing Co., who helped launch the anti-middle-school group, Upper Perkiomen Concerned Citizens, during the fall.
A new building also is opposed by mayors of two boroughs worried about the economic impact on their struggling communities.
"We're willing to do renovations," said Vicki Lightcap, mayor of Pennsburg, which with neighboring East Greenville is among the poorest communities in Montgomery County. "We just can't afford the new middle school that's going to raise our taxes."
The battle lines in Upper Perkiomen - pitting taxpayers against growth-minded school board members and administrators - may sound familiar to anyone who has lived through the last few decades of Pennsylvania's school budget wars.
Here, though, the sense of déjà vu is especially powerful.
Residents note that an almost identical middle school plan was proposed and shot down in the early 2000s. One of its backers on the school board, John Farris, lost reelection in 2003 to a slate of candidates opposed to the new school. He returned to the board in 2015 and now, as president, is said to be behind the current building push.
Farris referred questions to the superintendent, who said the decision to move ahead with the new middle school was the result of careful planning, including an enrollment study two years ago and a feasibility study weighing alternatives.
The board feels strongly that renovating the current aging structure would be fiscally irresponsible, McGloin said. "A new middle school will meet the needs of 21st-century learning," she added.
The proposal calls for erecting the new school, grades six through eight, on a 43-acre property that the district owns near Green Lane Reservoir.
The plan was one of several options presented by a facilities committee last March. However, local government officials and residents say that details have dribbled out only in recent weeks and that some major aspects of the project such as the impact on traffic are still unknown to the public.
"This has been railroaded," said Ryan Sloyer, mayor of East Greenville.
Cunningham, of Concerned Citizens, said many taxpayers are still upset over the district's purchase and $4 million renovation of a local skating rink to house administrative offices and a kindergarten center, which never materialized.
"There are so many things that need to be fixed before they think about building a new school," said James Glackin, a Pennsburg resident who teaches seventh-grade math in the Philadelphia School District.
"I teach in a classroom that's 115 years old," he added. "People are doing it."