The district plans to buy the former special education facility for $1.495 million, but millions more in repairs are needed before reopening it as a full-day pre-K and kindergarten.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 17, 2023
Last week, the Haddonfield Board of Education (BOE) approved a deal to acquire the former Kingsway Learning Center in a move that district officials say represents the first steps toward offering a full-day kindergarten for borough residents.
The property at 144 King’s Highway West most recently operated as a school for children with special needs, until Kingsway relocated to its Voorhees campus in 2019, as reported by the Courier-Post.
That functionality made it an attractive acquisition for the Haddonfield school district, said Superintendent Chuck Klaus, who’s led exploration of the topic since the property was listed for sale in 2022.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Klaus said. “If we didn’t take a shot at this, there’s not another 50,000 square-foot building coming along in Haddonfield. Given the contingencies, we had to do it.”
The superintendent said the preliminary agreement approved by the board secures a $1.495-million purchase price with a $100,000 deposit. The district will have to go out for a bond referendum to acquire the property, which will need millions more to rehabilitate.
Rough estimates could put the final price tag for purchasing and refurbishing the building around $13 million, which includes a 35-percent, state-funded share of the work. Erecting a new school building of comparable size could cost as much as $20 million, Klaus said.
“With state funding, refurbishing and rehabilitating is much cheaper than new construction,” he said. “The rough estimate by square footage is about $7 million in our favor if we can refurbish Kingsway versus building something new.”
If the Haddonfield voting public approves the deal, Kingsway could be converted into a facility that would allow the district to establish a full-day kindergarten while also expanding its inclusive pre-K program from a two-hour to a full-day operation.
“The best, dollar-for-dollar investment in education is [when students are] young,” Klaus said. “You make sure that kids are getting solid support and instruction when they’re young. It cuts down on interventions later on.”
With roughly 200 children per grade level, Haddonfield public schools could educate about 400 students at the Kingsway property, the superintendent said.
Depending upon state funding allocations, the district may need to charge tuition to offset some of its operational costs.
However, consolidating its youngest learners into a single site may create some efficiencies of scale, Haddonfield BOE President Jaime Grookett said.
“Right now, we’re paying for separate services for all the elementary schools for pre-K and kindergarten,” Grookett said.
“If we consolidate the services into one building, resource centers and small learning areas are going to be accessible to all the students in the same building, so you don’t have to carve out the space in each elementary school.
“This will enable us to go back to having science labs, and tech labs, and music rooms, which we don’t necessarily have the space for currently in our elementary schools,” she said. “Neighborhood elementary schools become grades one to five.”
Acquiring the Kingsway property also frees up the school district to use property carved out from the Bancroft parcel — which includes the former Cooley Hall academic building — for other uses related to the high school campus, Grookett said.
“Kingsway came on the market as we were really focused on Cooley Hall,” she said. “[But] Cooley Hall is in disrepair; it’s not an option. And even if we could redo Cooley Hall, it takes up so much space that we couldn’t use the fields the way we were planning.”
The Board president also anticipates that any bond referendum will include money for other projects throughout the district. Haddonfield voters last approved a $35-million public question in 2016; Grookett said some of that debt service will be retired by the time the district proposes this new bond vote.
“At this point, really everything is on the table,” she said. “We are looking at adding field space, adding gym space, and refurbishing academic areas to really create more modern learning spaces.
“That previous referendum was really the nuts and bolts and getting the building occupiable,” Grookett said. “This bond referendum is exciting because it will really impact the students.”
District leaders said that acquiring Kingsway is not without its concerns, however, which largely are related to parking and student drop-off.
The property is located near an intersection of major arterial roadways that frequently backed up with school buses when the learning center operated.
“We couldn’t in good conscience put it there if we don’t have good pick-up and drop-off,” Klaus said.
“If we put a staff of 40 there, and we can’t park them there, it’s not like Lizzy Haddon, where there’s street parking around it,” he said.
“If we can’t put them in a lot there or have some solution, it doesn’t work.”
Klaus and Grookett said the district has already begun exploring how to resolve those issues.
Board members have toured the site, traffic studies and land surveys are planned, and any redevelopment project will need to clear the borough land use boards as well as garnering sign-offs from the state Departments of Transportation and Education.
The district also has a 90-day window in which to abandon the deal without incurring any financial penalty.
“We’re going to dig deep into solving our problems, to get applications in place; to make sure that it can be used the way we want to use it, and it can be done well,” Klaus said.
“I think people are aware we’re short on space, and that acquiring this property would really help the district,” he said. “Full-day kindergarten is coming down the line, and we don’t have the space in our current elementary schools to accommodate it.”
Both the superintendent and board president said they’ve fielded early feedback from residents, which they described as mostly positive, while also mindful of the logistical concerns with the site.
“Most people see this as a viable option; they have the same reservations we do, that traffic and parking are something to consider,” Klaus said.
“We’re counting on our professionals to tell us what traffic studies will look like, and we’re willing to be creative,” he said.
“Buying any property, you have to do all your checks and balances before you commit to anything,” Grookett said. “It seems like we’ve had a lot of support.
“There’s always going to be people who are in opposition, and we really want to consider their positions and their points,” she said. “We needed to sign this contract [with Kingsway]so we could get our people working on it.”
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