West Mifflin to share Duquesne concerns with state

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State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak has agreed to meet with West Mifflin Area school officials to discuss issues concerning the Duquesne high school students who attend West Mifflin Area High School.

In addition, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which manages the Duquesne district, has plans to meet with West Mifflin administrators to iron out a dispute about how much tuition the West Mifflin district should receive for the Duquesne students.

West Mifflin School Director John Donis said he received a letter from Dr. Zahorchak this week in which the secretary said he saw news reports about the board's concerns about funding and the fact that a transition committee had ceased meeting.

Mr. Donis said the secretary in his letter said he was available to meet with West Mifflin officials, and Mr. Donis said he planned to set up a meeting at some point after Easter.

At the past two board meetings, West Mifflin school directors have discussed the fact that a transition committee created to oversee the merger of Duquesne students to West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny high schools had not met in the past year.

Duquesne High School was closed in June 2007 and its students reassigned to the two other area high schools, with about two-thirds of them attending West Mifflin Area. As of late February, about 140 Duquesne students attended West Mifflin.

At last Thursday's meeting School Director Phil Shar said it appeared the district was losing money on the Duquesne students as the state reimburses the district about $9,400 per student, but West Mifflin's per-pupil cost is $14,500.

This week Mr. Shar said he welcomed the upcoming forum with the secretary to discuss the funding issues.

Mr. Shar said the approximate $5,000 shortfall per student adds up to about $700,000 for the 140 students attending West Mifflin.

Mr. Donis said his concern was larger than the finances. He wants to ensure there is an ongoing dialogue between the district and the Education Department. He said it was his understanding that was the point of the transition committee, but that it stopped meeting.

Superintendent Janet Sardon said at the board meeting that the committee met twice the first year, once last year and not at all this year.

In response, Leah Harris, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said in an e-mail before Dr. Zahorchak's letter was sent, that the committee was not meeting because it became unnecessary since the education secretary receives regular updates from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the board of control.

Ms. Harris noted that the "transition of the Duquesne students has gone extremely well and that this is a testament to the hard work and dedication of both West Mifflin and East Allegheny school districts."

News that the transition committee had been disbanded angered some West Mifflin school directors, prompting Mr. Donis to look into the matter and contact local legislators.

He said that in addition to meeting with Dr. Zahorchak, he wanted to make sure there is a method of communicating with the new state administration that will take over after a new governor is elected.

State Rep. Bill Kortz, D-West Mifflin, said he supported Mr. Donis' efforts.

There are several financial issues West Mifflin officials would like to address in addition to the one raised by Mr. Shar.

Dr. Sardon and business manager Dennis Cmar said the losses were even greater than Mr. Shar identified because it costs the district more than the $14,500 per-pupil cost to educate special education students from Duquesne and those who must be placed in out-of-district programs. Yet the district receives the same $9,400 for those students.

In addition, West Mifflin administrators believe that they have not received full funding from the Duquesne district for the high school students who have been educated at West Mifflin. They said they planned to meet with officials from the AIU to discuss this matter.

Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman for the AIU, said reimbursements to West Mifflin come directly from the business office at the Duquesne City School District.

She said so far this year, Duquesne has paid West Mifflin $720,833 in tuition for Duquesne students.

Mrs. McCluan said the AIU was in the process of setting up a meeting with West Mifflin. She said that if there are discrepancies in the payments, it could be because "the legislative language is complicated and interpretations of the language can vary."

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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