North Allegheny parents oppose proposed closure of Peebles Elementary School

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The North Allegheny School District superintendent has recommended that the district close Peebles Elementary School in the 2013-14 school year.

The school board must now decide whether to move forward with the recommendation and schedule a public hearing. The board cannot vote for at least three months after the hearing.

Superintendent Raymond Gualtieri recommended that the hearing be held Jan. 30, with a vote set for April 30.

In response, parents have formed a group to drum up support to keep Peebles open. Called Save NA Schools, the group has a website and a Facebook page. Members presented the board with a 32-page analysis Nov. 28, contending that the number of spare classrooms and the enrollment projections do not justify the closure of Peebles, which is in McCandless.

The road to last week's recommendation started with a demographics and feasibility study by Architectural Innovations in August 2011, recommending closing Peebles or Bradford Woods elementary schools.

Since that report cited expensive repairs to Bradford Woods, the board focused on closing that school.

"After the Phase 1 report, the board was unsure about both the demographic info and the cost of the renovations," said Joy Ed, director of communications and development for the district. "This particular board has had a lot of experience with renovations and they felt that the numbers were out of line."

That prompted the district to solicit a Phase 2 report from Thomas & Williamson, a Ross-based construction management firm that was involved with the renovations of several district buildings.

That firm took a more conservative approach to the Bradford Woods renovations.

"If you take that massive renovation cost away, you are looking at different criteria," Mrs. Ed said.

The factors leading to the decision to close Peebles included available space, district growth areas and neighboring schools.

Bradford Woods, in the borough of the same name, has more spare classrooms than Peebles and is "located in the district where growth is anticipated," Mrs. Ed said.

Mr. Gualtieri said the elementary schools have 33 spare classrooms. "If we close Peebles, we will use 22 of them," he said. "We can accommodate all the students."

Mrs. Ed said administrators also took into account that Peebles and Hosack Elementary are only one mile apart on Peebles Road.

Mr. Gualtieri has estimated that closing Peebles would save $850,000 a year if the facility could be rented. However, he said, the impetus behind the recommendation is excess capacity, not financial.

But parents of students at Peebles and Hosack vow to fight the proposal. The Save NA Schools: Community Report, given to each board member and administrator at the Nov. 28 meeting, outlines several areas in which they believe the district's numbers and assumptions are incorrect.

The group contends that some of the rooms designated as "spare" classrooms are smaller and not as conducive to learning as a regular classroom.

Closing a school also would require the smaller elementary schools to run more sections of each grade than they do now and would require the remaining schools to operate at 90 percent of capacity, leaving no room for growth, according to the report.

They also contend that the administration has a history of underestimating enrollment.

"What we have here is a trend where we have forecasted significantly under where we have been, and this is going on for 13 years," said parent Chris Disque, one of the authors of the group's report.

The group compared the five-year enrollment projections from board meeting minutes with the actual enrollment five years later.

They found the projections were low by 337 students in 1999, 312 students in 2006, 438 students in 2007 and 366 students in 2008.

The group's report can be seen at www.savenaschools.com. All district reports are available at www.northallegheny.org.

Parent Kelly Ubinger contended that Peebles or Hosack students would be hurt by attending McKnight, which she categorized as an "underperforming" school.

The special education subgroup at McKnight did not make Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind last year, putting the school on the warning list, said Arleen Wheat, director of special education. Special education students take the same Pennsylvania State System of Assessment tests as the rest of the students.

McKnight did make AYP, with 84.8 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in math and 83.5 percent in reading, she said.

Because McKnight is a large school, its special education students must be reported as a separate group, a requirement not faced by the smaller elementary schools, Ms. Wheat said. Special education students in the smaller schools "may not be making AYP either, but this is not reported because they are not large enough to have a reportable subgroup."

Members of the Save NA Schools group continued to ask the district to outsource bus service to save money, rather than close Peebles.

Administrators have said they plan to study outsourcing in 2014 when the contract with bus drivers expires. But board President Maureen Grosheider said the district has studied the issue previously and the savings were "not significant."

education - neigh_north

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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