Members of the Save NA Schools group are confident they got their message -- don't close Peebles Elementary School -- across to the North Allegheny school board during a seven-hour public hearing that didn't adjourn until 2:20 a.m. last Thursday. But superintendent Raymond Gualtieri's statement following testimony suggested the group still may face an uphill battle.
Board members will vote in May on an administration proposal to close the school, which is in McCandless.
"We feel the hearing could not have gone any better. We had over 100 speakers advocating on behalf of keeping Peebles elementary open, and not one speaker came forward advocating for the closing of the building," said Tara Fisher, one of the leaders of the citizens' group, Save NA Schools. "I think we've given them a lot to think about. We made a lot of educated, well-thought-out arguments."
Speakers during the Jan. 30 public hearing were from all seven elementary schools, although most represented Peebles and Hosack.
While 110 speakers were registered, the late hour reduced the final total to 98.
School board President Maureen Grosheider said there is a lot of data to review from the meeting.
"We are certainly going to consider everything that was said," Mrs. Grosheider said. "Obviously, we are not in the position to make any kind of a decision for three months." Under state law, the board cannot decide the matter for 90 days.
The administration proposed closing Peebles because the district has spare classrooms and is facing a $5.8 million deficit. Closing Peebles is expected to save between $850,000 and $1.2 million.
"Continuing to maintain extra capacity at this level in our elementary program is a true disservice to our taxpayers and to our students because it comes at the expense of the rest of our programs and services," Mr. Gualtieri said in a statement after the hearing.
Mr. Gualtieri said the district serves nearly 3,000 elementary families and a total of 28,000 taxpayers.
"So, we have to keep the balance of perspective that only 98 people came out to ask the board not to close Peebles. The silence of the voices of the rest of our taxpayers who did not attend that meeting has to be interpreted as support for what the administration and the school board are considering," he said, adding that he has received letters from parents thanking him for making tough decisions to keep the district fiscally sound.
Mr. Gualtieri said that the biggest challenge of the evening for him was hearing inaccurate information and personal attacks on board members and statements denigrating the reputation of the district.
"This is an excellent school district by any and every measure," he said. Our only agenda is and always has been to do what is best for all of our students -- and to be accountable to our taxpayers."
Speakers addressed the impact of closing Peebles on class sizes and on the district's elementary program.
"We make tremendous sacrifices for our children, yet one thing we will not sacrifice is their education," said Josephine Paytas.
"To maintain programs, we must close a high-performing and well-maintained school? This does not make sense."
Mrs. Fisher said the elementary schools have a number of spare classrooms only because the district is operating fewer sections with higher class sizes this year.
Jane Majerac said her daughter is in a third grade class of 31 students at Hosack this year. "Don't we value a child's education more than this?" she asked. "Closing a school will increase class sizes in all the elementary schools and will drive down property values."
Others tried to cast doubt on administration enrollment projections that show declining enrollment in McCandless.
Many speakers said they bought their homes from empty nesters, and many more homes in their neighborhoods will be turning over in the next few years. Real estate agent Susie Holmes said 10 of her 24 transactions last year were in McCandless, and those transactions added nine children.
"There is a lot of turnover in this community. McCandless is very desirable," she said.
Other speakers made suggestions on where the board could save money rather than close a school. The Save NA Schools group and several speakers suggested outsourcing buses. Kim DeMarco asked why administrators are still attending conferences and suggested eliminating paper report cards, posting grade reports online and offering orchestra in fourth grade instead of third grade.
Speakers also asked the board to appoint a community task force to help the district find ways to save money without closing a school.
"You have a community filled with experts in finance, law and real estate. You have a community filled with people who want to help," said Frank Corona.
Mr. Gualtieri said that some of the suggestions made by the Save NA Schools group are practical and some "would do more harm than good in the long run." He added that most of their suggestions have already been explored or implemented.
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.