Shaler Area may open tracks to residents

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Shaler Area school board is considering opening a few of its school tracks to residents, overturning a policy established last spring that closed the tracks during school hours.

A group of senior citizens who say they have regularly used the Shaler Area Middle School track for years without incident, asked board members Aug. 12 at a committee of the whole meeting if they would consider changing the policy so residents could use the track for fitness and recovery from surgery.

Walter Banze said, “We’ve walked here for 10 years and all of a sudden we’re told we can’t walk anymore.”

Wesley Shipley, Shaler Area superintendent, said only the sign, not the policy was changed. The previous sign, he said, was too vague and it was being vandalized. Mr. Shipley also said walkers were using vulgarities in front of students and there was concern for the walkers’ safety as well as the safety and security of students.

The sign now states that the track is closed from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on school days.

“We’ve kind of turned a blind eye to it,” Mr. Shipley said. “But when it impacts learning, we have to take steps. When there’s a class out there, it’s a classroom.”

John McDonough, a retired teacher from Shaler Area High School, said his group of senior walkers sent a letter to Kara Eckert, assistant to the superintendent, asking if they could continue using the track.

“There are very few walkers who walk during the day,” he said. “Phys ed classes usually only use part of the space. There’s ample space for people to walk.”

He said many of the elderly walkers use the track to continue their physical therapy and to maintain fitness.

Ms. Eckert said issuing identification badges and having track users sign a clearance form might be a solution for the group, “knowing that they use the track on a daily basis.”

Board members discussed the problem at length, conferring with the solicitor as well as the seniors and one another. Allowing tax-paying residents to use school facilities has been an issue at many Pennsylvania school districts, and policy changes have been made, especially when such areas have been considered community centers supported by local donations. However, the safety and security of students was first in their concerns.

Board member April Kwiatkowski asked if a track pass plus clearance form would be adequate.

Mr. Shipley said if the board wanted to do that, they’d have to make changes to the district policy.

And John Vogel, district solicitor, said making a distinction between seniors and other residents may not be a rational reason for the policy change.

Board member Suzanna Donahue said, “As a parent of a small child, I can’t even get into the school without permission.”

And board member Tim Gapsky said, “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it for everybody.”

“This is school property,” Mr. Vogel said. “You have the discretion to do it.” He added the board could distinguish which school areas would be available in a new policy.

“Why the track?” asked Steven Romac, board member.

“It’s a matter of safety for the walkers, especially those recovering from orthopedic surgeries,” said Mr. Banze. He suggested that seeing the elderly walkers might teach students about the need to maintain lifelong health and fitness.

Addressing Mr. Vogel, board member William Couts asked for guidance. “It’s a classroom visitation, so we’d have to make an exception in our classroom visitation policy.”

John Fries, board vice president, who was leading the meeting in the absence of President Jeanne Petrovich, closed the discussion, suggesting the board take the question to its policy committee.

“Our question is,” said Mr. Banze, “is there a compromise?”

Mr. Couts said it would probably be the end of September before the board would have an answer to that question.

Rita Michel, freelance writer:

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