Peters parents question classes change at McMurray elementary

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Peters parents turned out en masse at Monday’s school board meeting, but they weren’t there to question a large proposed tax increase in next year’s budget.

No one commented when the board unanimously approved a $56.5 million tentative budget for next year, which includes a 5.142-mill real estate tax increase.  Instead, parents were miffed that administrators at McMurray Elementary School hadn’t notified them about plans to drop chorus and ensemble band and orchestra instruction as elective options and instead reclassify the classes as extracurricular activities.

"Time and again, the research speaks for itself; students involved in music have higher test scores,“ said parent Alison D’Addieco, who was also disappointed that parents weren’t consulted before a decision was made to drop the class next year.  ”I heard about these changes in the rumor mill.“

Superintendent Jeannine French said administrators were concerned about steadily decreasing assessment scores for students at McMurray, as compared to those in Bower Hill or Pleasant Valley elementary schools.  She said the school sent home a schedule change alert last month.

"This has been an ongoing process since the beginning of the school year,” she said.

Ms. French said she found that students were being given the choice between core curriculum, such as math, science or reading, and music classes.  Because of that, some students were taking only about half of the core classes they need to score higher on assessments.

She said general music will remain as a core class in the schedule but that the other music electives would fare better as extracurricular activities because a district review of the programs showed that participation in music electives fell off by more than 50 percent between grades four and six.

She said administrators would do a better job of communicating changes in the future and would explore various scheduling options this summer before a final decision is made for the next school year.

"We are going to find something that will work,“ Ms. French said.  ”What we have now isn’t working.“

Along with the tentative budget, members unanimously OK’d a capital projects budget of $6.7 million and authorized the district’s business office to sign off on a bond issue of up to $7 million.

Interest rates for the district are at a record low of around 2.6 percent, finance committee chairman Jamison Hardy said, and the district’s investments have been returning dismal results for several years.  He said the financing boost would lengthen the district’s debt repayment schedule, but it would not result in higher annual payments.  Incurring debt now would also assure the district could complete more than 200 capital projects totaling nearly $14 million that have been on the back burner for years.

"The district is in such a favorable position, it makes sense to do these things now,” he said.

The board is expected to pass a final budget on its June 30 deadline, and members have said the tax increase is largely unavoidable, due to significant increases in special education, staffing and retirement costs.  Even with a 5.142-mill hike, the district would face a spending deficit of about $750,000.

If passed, the new, 107.142-mill rate would raise real estate taxes for the typical homeowner by about $160 per year. The district’s per-pupil spending rate would continue as one of the lowest in the state, and real estate tax rates also would still be much lower than those of neighboring South Hills districts in Allegheny County, including Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park.

Parents and students will also feel the pinch with a hike in activity fees from $90 to $100 for high school athletics. Other activity fees established last year will remain in place again next year.

Also Monday, the board:

■ Accepted the resignation of middle school principal Robert Freado, who has worked in the district for 22 years.  His retirement is effective June 30.

■ Voted to seek proposals for a new district solicitor.  Lawyer Jack Cambest and his firm have represented the district since September 2005.  They have been paid a monthly retainer but are not under contract.

■ Unanimously approved a new contract for Act 93 employees, such as building principals.  The new three-year pact expires June 30, 2017, and contains annual raises that are tied to bargaining unit increases established for teachers.

■ Approved a tentative agreement with the Peters Township Educational Support Personnel Association, which represents about 35 cafeteria employees.  Details of the agreement will be available once the union approves it.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159.

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