Moon schools eager to talk merger with Cornell

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When the Moon Area School board voted recently to reach out to its much smaller neighbor, the Cornell School District, to discuss a possible merger, it resurrected an issue that had been explored at least twice before.

In 1992 and 1998, the districts studied the idea of a merger or of Cornell students attending Moon on a tuition basis. It died both times because of opposition in the communities and the lack of state financial incentives, but the voluntary merger of the Center Area and Monaca districts, to form Central Valley School District, in recent years has some Moon board members taking a new look at the prospect of sharing resources.

The Central Valley merger, initiated with board votes in 2007 and finalized in 2010, was the first since the court-ordered formation of the Woodland Hills School District in 1981 and the only district in Pennsylvania to be formed through a voluntary merger.

"I just think it's something we should take a look at," said Moon school director Laura Schisler, who raised the idea at a May 25 board meeting to vote on the closing of an elementary school.

It first appeared that the motion, made late in the six-hour meeting, was an attempt to avert the elementary building closing, but school directors made it clear at the June 30 continuation of the board meeting that Hyde Elementary, which they voted to close, would remain closed regardless of any potential merger.

The Moon Area board might be eager to discuss a merger, but there appears to be no urgency on Cornell's part to initiate talks.

Cornell superintendent Aaron Thomas said his board does not meet again until August, and a decision about whether to enter talks might have to wait until then.

"That's the part of this that is kind of frustrating and irritating. We didn't ask for this. We are very content and very happy with what we are able to do with our students," he said.

Mr. Thomas said he had a brief phone conversation with Moon superintendent Curt Baker about the subject and later received a letter from Mr. Baker expressing the Moon board's desire to talk merger. Mr. Thomas said he had talked with a few members of the Cornell board.

"We are in a mode where we don't know what level of interest there is or what spurred this," Mr. Thomas said.

During past attempts to discuss a merger, Cornell was the more vulnerable district, then experiencing financial and academic issues, but Mr. Thomas said the district now is stable financially and academically, having just adopted a $12.2 million budget that held taxes at 22.746 mills.

"We are in a very good financial situation, probably one of the better financial situations in a long time," he said.

Moon, on the other hand, approved a 0.7294-mill increase in its $68.57 million budget. The new millage rate is 18.8461.

At a recent budget meeting, Moon board members expressed concern about using $2.1 million of its fund balance to close budgetary gaps and cover increases in retirement contributions for employees. Though $5.27 million remains in the fund balance, board members asked Mr. Baker to come up with a cost-containment plan.

At the time of the Central Valley merger, both districts had been losing enrollment, with Monaca at about 700 students and having difficulty offering a full array of courses and activities. Center's enrollment was about 1,500.

The process was not smooth.

Both school boards approved the merger in October 2007, but shortly after, newly elected board members in Center Area called the process to a halt and stopped communicating with Monaca.

In June 2008, a compromise had been reached between the districts that allowed them to slowly resume the process. The merger was finalized when the middle and high schools were combined in 2010.

A federal court order that forced the consolidation of five school districts that served 12 municipalities in the eastern suburbs of Allegheny County formed the Woodland Hills district.

The order was the result of a civil rights lawsuit residents of the former General Braddock School District filed. They said the state created their district to serve the largely black communities of Braddock, Rankin and North Braddock. The largely white districts of Churchill Area, Edgewood, Swissvale and Turtle Creek surrounded that district.

In 1981, U.S. District Judge Gerald Weber ordered the creation of the Woodland Hills district, merging General Braddock with the four white districts. Some opponents took legal challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in 1982.

Cornell, the smallest district in the county, comprises Coraopolis and Neville and has an enrollment of about 650 in grades K-12 who are educated in one building. According to the district's School Performance Profile, 60.37 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Moon Area, which serves students from Moon and Crescent, has an enrollment of about 3,700, and, with the closing of Hyde, has four elementary buildings housing grades K-4, a middle school for grades 5-8 and Moon Area High School, which serves grades 9-12. Moon's performance profile indicates 15.58 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Mr. Thomas and Moon officials agreed that even if a merger were worked out, it likely would take several years to finalize.

"This would be a major ordeal," Mr. Thomas said. "It would take multiple years, and when they start to look at costs and figuring out what to do with what, that could become a heated political topic."


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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