Tempers flare at Moon Area school meeting

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With the vote by Moon Area school directors on the possible closure of J. H. Brooks Elementary less than two weeks away, tempers Monday night boiled with board member Jeffrey Bussard stalking out of the room and cursing at a resident who had interrupted his closing comments.

Mr. Bussard and the resident, Rob Harper, continued their heated exchange into the hallway. Mr. Bussard walked out the back door while superintendent Curt Baker and Vice President Denny Harbaugh ushered the audience back into the board room to hastily adjourn the meeting, which lasted about four hours.

The board has been discussing closing one or more elementary school since July 2012 when demographic and feasibility studies were ordered. The studies were prompted by aging structures and an abundance of unused grade school classrooms, which was due in part to moving fifth-graders into the middle school for 2012-13.

The district conducted studies, presentations and public hearings about closing one of the five elementary buildings. The administration recommended March 3 to close Brooks Elementary and expand R. Hyde and renovate J. A. Allard to save approximately $500,000.

Parents said the changes would disrupt the sense of community and belonging neighborhood schools provide.

On Monday, Mr. Bussard talked about empty classrooms and how residents did not reference the problem when speaking, saying he didn’t blame them and wouldn’t mention it either if he were among them. He concluded, saying, “I have nothing more to say,” prompting a round of applause by the audience.

As Mr. Harper interrupted Mr. Bussard during his concluding remarks, solicitor Michael Brungo warned Mr. Harper that he could be removed from the room if he continued to talk out of turn.

Earlier in the meeting, Mr. Harper had chastised Mr. Bussard for not referring to the Thorn Run Interchange by its proper name, the Robert E. Harper Interchange, named after his late father, who was a Moon supervisor from 1980 to 1983.

During public comment, Mr. Harper indicated that he was frustrated with the way board votes had been occurring, usually a 7-2 split with Jerry Testa and Michael Hauser voting against any heavily discussed topics. Mr. Harper said this would be “indicative of what the vote will be” on the elementary capital improvement plan. He urged the board to hold off on making a decision until 2015 and in the meantime do further studies for traffic and possible real estate value impacts.

Mr. Testa and Mr. Hauser made a failed motion earlier in the meeting for these types of studies to be conducted prior to the final vote. Michael Olszewski and Scott LaRue were absent.

Many of the 19 other residents who spoke also accused the board of already knowing how they would vote and for giving “blank stares” as they were being addressed.

“Do you want to have your community known for picketing and calling media attention to this matter? Or do you want it known for the great schools we already have? There are no ‘sides’. There is what is right and is wrong,” wrote Denise Cartisser in a letter to board members Tuesday.

She also wrote, “The language and behavior from not only Mr. Bussard [Monday] night was unacceptable … but from those of you who are not listening with your hearts.”

The board is considering changing the elementary school format from K-4 to K-2 at Hyde and Bon Meade and grades 3-4 for Allard and McCormick.

Director Laura Schisler said the board could “kick the can down the road,” but that mentality had caused the current issues at the elementary level. We have two [buildings] that have never been touched and another that is bursting at the seams.”

The decision on Brooks is scheduled for 7 p.m. June 23, when the board also will consider the 2014-15 budget.

Sonja Reis, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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