Closing one of the small elementary schools in the North Allegheny School District would save money and stabilize class sizes throughout the district, school board members said.
But, if they do close a school, "change will be felt throughout the system," said Brian Miller, assistant superintendent for K-12 education. "There is no easy decision; there are just a series of difficult ones.
"If you remove a small school from our system, the entire system will be affected."
Mr. Miller presented a demographics update Oct. 24 that showed there are spare classrooms in each of the seven elementary schools and other rooms that could be converted to classrooms.
A consultant recommended in August that the district close its first and oldest school -- Peebles Elementary in McCandless. Peebles was built in 1952 and renovated in 1999. Last year, another consultant recommended closing Bradford Woods Elementary, which needs major renovations.
The possibility of closing a school is a long process, board president Maureen Grosheider said. Mr. Miller's update was the first of several to come.
More updates will be given Nov. 14 and 28. The board has directed administrators to work on four redistricting scenarios: closing Peebles, Hosack or Bradford Woods elementary schools and keeping all of them open.
There are 3,530 grades K-4 students in North Allegheny. The seven elementary schools have a target capacity of 4,500. If one of the small schools was removed, the available target capacity would be 3,960, Mr. Miller said.
Peebles is operating at 69 percent of capacity, Hosack at 62 percent and Bradford Woods at 74 percent. Franklin Elementary, on the other hand, is operating at 95 percent of capacity.
By 2015-16, it is projected that Peebles would operate at 58 percent of capacity, Hosack at 60 percent and Bradford Woods at 71 percent.
Superintendent Raymond Gualtieri has estimated that closing a small school would save $1 million a year.
"I would argue that when you are looking at a deficit of $8 million, if you can find $1 million, that means you only have to look for $7 million," Mrs. Grosheider said.
If the district closed Peebles, however, it would lose $1 million in annual state reimbursements from the 1999 renovation of that school, business Manager Mike Hopkins said.
Board member Beth Ludwig said members need to look at cost savings.
"We have to make up $8 million somewhere," she said. "Do we take it out of cutting more teachers? Do we take it out of our arts program?
"We have to do something to maintain North Allegheny with the quality that we know. Your kids are going to keep losing things if we keep all elementary schools open."
Board member Dan Hubert noted that the cost savings of closing a small school is equal to the cost of providing kindergarten or three of the four languages offered to secondary students.
"Without funding, something has to give. I would never cut kindergarten and I would never cut world languages," he said. "How do we fund this? The state is not giving us any money. They are taking money away on an annual basis."
Mrs. Ludwig said that closing a small school would also allow them to equalize class sizes.
The district's class size guidelines are 25 students in kindergarten through second grade and 30 in grades three through five, Mr. Miller said. In the past, another class would have been added if enrollment exceeded those guidelines.
Out of 145 elementary sections, there are eight sections at 30 or above and nine at 29 students, according to Mr. Miller's presentation.
"We can't have class sizes as unmanageable as they are now," Mrs. Ludwig said. "If we close one of the smaller schools, then we can start putting more classrooms together that are more reasonable sizes."
Board member Thomas Schwartzmier said he was "not comfortable" with projections that show the district's enrollment remaining flat.
"Five years down the road, we could have lots of new families move in," he said. "Before we select any of those scenarios, we have to be comfortable with the numbers."
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org