A divided North Allegheny school board voted Dec. 19 to hold a public hearing on a proposal to close Peebles Elementary School. Some board members said they are not comfortable enough yet with the data to actually vote to close the school in McCandless.
But holding the hearing keeps their options open, several members said.
The board voted 7-2 for a hearing Jan. 30. A vote to close the school cannot be made for at least 90 days after the hearing, under state law.
Board members Linda Bishop, Libby Blackburn, Joseph Greenberg, Dan Hubert, Beth Ludwig, Thomas Schwartzmier and board President Maureen Grosheider voted to schedule the hearing. Christopher Jacobs and Ralph Pagone voted against it.
A sometimes-raucous crowd of approximately 150 held posters reading "Save all 7 NA schools" and "It's elementary: Save our schools." The parents stood and held up the signs as the board voted.
Superintendent Raymond Gualtieri earlier presented the final part of the demographics and feasibility study that prompted the closing proposal.
Mr. Gualtieri noted that closing Peebles was also an option when the district closed Espe Elementary School in 1997.
"Waiting 15 years to make this decision has cost North Allegheny in both time and money," he said.
He noted that economic times have changed with both state funding and local revenue sources declining. He has estimated that closing Peebles could save $1.5 million per year. The district projects a $5 million deficit in the 2013-14 preliminary budget.
"Operational efficiency must be maximized to protect the quality of our core business, which is delivering an excellent educational program," he said. "We know for a fact that we have 33 full-size excess classrooms."
Some parents have questioned whether some of those excess rooms are conducive to learning, and Mr. Gualtieri also addressed that concern.
"I am hearing from parents that students will be put in faculty dining rooms. Those faculty dining rooms are full-size classrooms. They can be returned to the use that they were designed for," he said. "All spaces meet all Department of Education guidelines."
Closing Peebles was recommended in the second phase of the study, which was commissioned by the district this year. The first study, presented last year, had recommended closing Bradford Woods Elementary School because of the cost of needed renovations there.
Peebles was chosen because it has no spare classrooms and is only one mile from Hosack Elementary. Bradford Woods is in the northern end of the district, where future growth is expected, administrators contend.
Mr. Jacobs said the board has to take the 1999 renovation of Peebles into account. He said he would like to see a comparison, "side by side by side," of the pros and cons of closing Peebles, Hosack and Bradford Woods.
Mr. Pagone said the decision was the hardest he has had to make in his eight years on the board, adding that he is not comfortable with the data in either report.
"I have no problem, with the correct information, voting to close a school. But I have to have a comfort level with that. Right now, I don't have a comfort level," he said. "I want to make the right decision for the district and the students and the taxpayers and, where we are right now, I'm not there."
Mr. Pagone endorsed the idea of a community task force that has been requested by the Save NA Schools group, but admitted that the district does not have the 18 months to two years that the group has requested the task force have to study the issues.
"What is the harm in taking a step back and we pick a committee that reflects the interest?" he asked. "I'm asking that we do this: As a board, sleep on this."
Even the board members who voted in favor of the hearing said they are still not comfortable with the idea of closing a school.
"I feel as though our duty on board is to keep our options open," said Mrs. Blackburn, a sentiment that was also expressed by several other board members who voted to hold the hearing.
Approximately 45 parents spoke during the five-hour meeting, all urging the board to vote against holding the hearing, and to keep Peebles open.
"I would have never expected to get such one-on-one care of my children in a public school," said Kathy Evans.
Cristo Maffei, whose family moved from Ross to McCandless specifically for North Allegheny schools, noted that North Hills closed three elementary schools that needed major renovations -- but only after a two-year planning process with a 27-member committee.
Many parents noted that McCandless, while not growing with new construction, is experiencing growth of a different kind.
"I have five school-age children living in a house bought from a retiree," said Margie Craska. "You didn't see us coming."
Mrs. Craska said she could send her kids, tuition free, to the private school where she teaches, but chooses not to because Peebles is such a good school. Her son, she added, even asked her if she was "sure this school is free."
Kirk Kjellman, who no longer has children in the schools, said his neighborhood is also turning over with young families.
"There is still a lot of room for growth in this area," he said. "To me, it is worth spending $20 or $30 [in taxes] more a year to keep the kids where they are."
Mark Ricci noted that closing Peebles will save only 17 percent of the district's estimated 2013-14 deficit.
"If you would get 50 to 75 percent of the shortfall back, it would make sense. Seventeen percent does not make financial sense," he said.
Amy Lilienthal noted that the first phase of the study resulted in three options. Closing Bradford Woods seemed to make more sense, she said.
"It makes no financial sense to close a school that needs zero in renovations and keep open a school that needs millions," she said.neigh_north
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.