North Allegheny willing to delay Peebles closing one year

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Although North Allegheny School District administrators say that closing Peebles Elementary in McCandless is still "the strategically responsible thing to do," they are willing to wait a year to do so.

In his latest update to the "Demographics and Feasibility Study," superintendent Raymond Gualtieri told school board members March 20 that, if they vote to close Peebles in May as originally scheduled, the move would not take effect until 2014-15 to give students and parents more time to get used to the transition.

Mr. Gualtieri said that the yearlong transition will involve community focus groups, which will begin in the fall. The transitions would begin in January before kindergarten registration and before conferences are held for individualized education program plans for special education students.

The board held a public hearing Jan. 30 on the administration's proposal to close Peebles because of excess elementary capacity. Under state law, the board cannot vote on the closure for 90 days after the hearing. A special meeting for the vote had been scheduled for May 1, but Mr. Gualtieri said the board could now wait until May 22.

Even if Peebles does not close, Mr. Gualtieri said some redistricting will occur in 2014-15 to address enrollment problems at Franklin Elementary and the middle schools.

The latest report addresses some concerns parents have expressed about closing Peebles.

One is the number of spare classrooms available at other elementary schools. Parents disputed the districts' estimated number of spare classrooms, and contended that some of the rooms, such as a windowless basement room at Ingomar Elementary School, were not appropriate.

To address that, Mr. Gualtieri recommended that a shell wing at McKnight Elementary be finished to provide an additional five classrooms at that building, already the largest elementary school.

"What we heard loud and clear that the parents are worried with only 10-12 spare classrooms," he said. "This gives us five extra spare classrooms, which gives us more flexibility."

That east wing at McKnight has a concrete floor and a roof, but would require insulation, drywall and data wiring. Construction could be done within six months and could begin this summer. The estimated cost was $525,000.

"It is shocking to hear the district is considering taking on new construction at the same time it's considering closing a top-performing, well-maintained building in the heart of the district," said Tara Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Save NA Schools group. "This is another example of the information surrounding the recommendation to close Peebles continuing to change. A decision of this magnitude should not be based on ever-changing data, floor plans and an 11th hour amendment that involves new construction."

Mr. Gualtieri said that closing Peebles would save $850,000 a year, and renting the facility could bring in another $650,000 a year. He added that he has been contacted by several people who were interested in renting the facility, and also by a commercial real estate firm.

Those savings will allow the district to increase security measures and to upgrade technology.

"The time has come for us to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done with technology," he said. "We are nowhere close to where our competitor school districts are."

The district installed a Cisco Networking Solution at the two high schools and new wiring at the intermediate high school. A Nov. 28 report recommended that the same network be installed in the three middle schools, which would involve new wiring at Marshall Middle School. The board approved a $417,430 lease-to-own financing package from PNC Bank for the improvements.

It would cost $4 million to do all the middle and elementary schools, Mr. Gualtieri added.

Although the 2013-14 budget is balanced -- with a tax increase -- without closing Peebles, there are few options remaining for savings, he said.

"The district has taken numerous cuts and trimmed operational costs significantly. Future cuts have the potential to diminish educational programs and services, something we do not want to do," he said.

Several board members said they supported the new timeline for the potential closure of Peebles.

"I'm relieved to see what we are not pushing ahead with an early May decision and implementation in the fall. That was disruptive to the community," said board member Linda Bishop.

Other board members advocated delaying the vote to close Peebles until September, when new enrollment data will be available, or December, when members who were elected in November will take office.

Parents, meanwhile, continued to advocate for smaller class sizes, which would utilize the spare classrooms and result in Peebles remaining open.

The district did not replace many teachers who took advantage of an early retirement incentive, resulting in some classes exceeding the guidelines of 25 students in kindergarten through second grade and 29 students in third through fifth grade. Parents at Peebles and Hosack, who were accustomed to class sizes under 20 students, have requested that the district have "hard caps" that are lower than the guidelines and move third grade with the lower grades.

To have those numbers as caps instead of guidelines would require an additional 10 to 14 teachers, depending on whether third grade remained with a larger cap, said Brian Miller, assistant superintendent for K-12 education.

"If we add those teachers, then we are back to where we started. There is simply not enough space," said Daneen Leya. "We need more teachers. We need to reduce the class size. We need the space at Peebles."

education - neigh_north

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


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