The Whitehall City School District took a major step toward alleviating its overcrowding problem at the elementary level last week.

The Whitehall City School District took a major step toward alleviating its overcrowding problem at the elementary level last week.

District officials advertised for bids to construct 12 additional classrooms and plan to open bids the first week of January.

It was nearly one year ago that the district officially addressed its overcrowding problem, with board members voting to add four classrooms each to Beechwood, Etna Road and Kae Avenue elementary schools, all new structures themselves.

District Superintendent Brian Hamler said last week he aims to break ground in January and finish construction by mid-July, with the hopes of launching the 2014-15 school year with plenty of classroom space at the elementary level.

Work on the old portion of Whitehall-Yearling High School currently mothballed is not as apparent, he said.

"The timeline is not as clear on the back half of the high school," he said. "I had hoped for a spring opening, but it is taking a bit longer planning the scope of work. For example, we are trying to get a handle on what all needs to be abated."

While part of the old high school currently is open and in use -- including locker rooms, a weight room and the auxiliary gym -- other portions of the back half of the building require improvement and must be brought up to ADA compliance, Hamler said.

District officials and board members met in a special session Dec. 17 to discuss overcrowding and a plan to tackle that and other construction issues.

The meeting, which became strained at times, lasted nearly two hours.

In the end, board members agreed with the district's recommendation to add 12 new classrooms to Whitehall's three new elementary schools -- a recommendation also endorsed by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (formerly the Ohio School Facilities Commission).

The district blames the commission for the mistake, saying its enrollment projections were off when they were made at the start of the project. Former Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy questioned the state's projections from the beginning, she said, with her worst fears coming true when doors opened this year.

But Hamler acknowledges overcrowding might be a good problem to have.

"I don't see that bubble as a problem," said Hamler of the boost in enrollment at the elementary level. "It's my hope that we continue to grow as a district."

To date, about 450 Whitehall students have left the district for charter and private schools, Hamler said. He said he wants to draw many of those students back with a high-quality education while boosting the district's image with the public.

His first move in that area was to hire Ty Debevoise as the district's first public affairs guru. Hamler also applauded the city for its work to improve Whitehall as a community in the hopes of transforming the former military community into one that appeals to first-time homebuyers.

The 12 additional classrooms are expected to cost around $3.2 million. Interest earnings on state funds and an overall project cost savings are expected to pay for the new rooms.