Declining rolls lead Allegheny County school districts to adjust
September 1, 2014 12:00 AM
Children arrive on buses for classes at Penn Hills Elementary Center.
By Mary Niederberger and Clarece Polke / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This is the second installment of a three-part series.
A conversation about elementary school reorganization was the genesis for the joining of Center Area and Monaca school districts into Central Valley in 2010, the state’s only voluntary district merger.
Fast forward to a June meeting of the Moon Area school board.
In the midst of a discussion about which of the district’s elementary schools to close, a board member suggested resurrecting the possibility of merging with the tiny neighboring Cornell School District.
As school districts throughout the region face declining enrollments and increasing financial pressures, it’s still rare for districts to consider merging, but more are consolidating within their own boundaries with fewer and larger, more centrally located schools.
The result is the era of neighborhood elementary schools is fading.
In Allegheny County, about half of the 43 school districts have closed schools, consolidated schools, redistricted or changed grade levels within buildings in the past decade.
While parents often fight to keep neighborhood schools open, districts that have consolidated have found that uniformity of services and parity of offerings increase although intimacy and proximity are lost.
In some districts such as McKeesport Area, where enrollment is down 23 percent since 2004, and Penn Hills, with a 31 percent drop, the transformations are complete or nearly complete after years of school closings, reorganizations, construction and renovations undertaken with little community outcry. But in other districts considering closings, such as Moon Area and Woodland Hills, community opposition is mounting.
In Moon, closing Hyde Elementary in 2015 will be the first step in dismantling the district’s system of five neighborhood kindergarten to fourth-grade elementary schools. The board plans to renovate the remaining four schools and switch Brooks and Bon Meade to grades K-2 and McCormick and J.A. Allard to grades 3-4.
Residents have opposed the Hyde closing and grade reconfiguration, but district officials have said housing grade levels together will provide everyone with the same quality of education.
As closing Hyde was approved for a second time in July, the Moon board also voted to pursue the merger talks, and a month later the Cornell board voted to allow its superintendent to participate in the talks.
School buildings closed and closing
Many of of these school buildings have gone up for sale, but some have found new uses serving students. The map includes some that are still open but have been approved for closing in the future. It does not include buildings in Pittsburgh where schools were closed but the building already was designated to become another district school.
Moon, with about 3,700 students, is nearly six times larger than Cornell, which has 650 students.
The merger idea, already twice studied and twice rejected, has gained momentum. Municipal councils in Coraopolis and Neville Island, which comprise the Cornell district, approved resolutions supporting talks because of the prospect of more academic and other opportunities for Cornell students.
Opposition to closings
Communities have close emotional ties to their schools; sometimes generations of families attended that school, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
“When you’re merging areas, you’re losing some of that community’s identity. I don’t know if you can put a monetary value on that,” Mr. Buckheit said.
He also said transportation to neighborhood schools is easier.
When a Shaler Area School District feasibility study recently suggested three options, two of which include closing Reserve Primary, about 50 residents showed up last week for a board committee meeting, some recounting the loss of all of the other schools in Reserve, Millvale and Etna over the years.
In districts such as Woodland Hills, where finances are strained and enrollment has dropped 31 percent since 2004, some officials see no other viable option to closing schools.
In a questionnaire circulated in April at a town hall meeting in Braddock, superintendent Alan Johnson got overwhelmingly negative responses to the idea of closing Fairless Elementary, which is in North Braddock and one of the district’s lowest-performing schools on state standardized tests.
Within a month, he expects to ask the board to consider closing several buildings.
“I suspect I will probably be a really unpopular person in the Woodland Hills School District because I’ll be the face of someone giving news they don’t want to hear, but I’m fine with that because I’m thinking of the survivability of the district long term,” Mr. Johnson said.
In some districts, opposition lessens when parents find better facilities and more academic opportunities at the new school.
In the North Hills School District, which reduced its elementary schools from seven to four renovated buildings of comparable size, parent Denise Hampson was among those who fought to save Perrysville Elementary, where her daughter Emma attended kindergarten through third grade. Her daughter completed grades 4 through 6 at the expanded and renovated Highcliff.
Now as her daughter starts eighth grade at the middle school, Ms. Hampson said she couldn’t say which elementary school she liked better.
“It turned out to be a more positive experience than I had anticipated,” she said.
Consolidation is also on the horizon in the Montour School District, where the board recently ratified a development agreement with Robinson, clearing the way for construction of a new $55 million elementary school for the district’s more than 900 students in grades K-5.
Upon its completion, J.W. Burkett and Forest Grove elementary schools will close. Another elementary school, Ingram, closed in 2012 with an enrollment of 164.
A 2012 feasibility study showed it would cost $8 million to $9 million less to build a new larger school than renovate the three existing buildings.
Smooth sailing for some
McKeesport Area is putting the finishing touches on a new wing at Founders Hall, which will allow sixth-graders to join their counterparts in seventh and eighth grades in the building at the high school campus.
When that renovation is completed — the target date is January — it will mark the end of a consolidation project that closed three elementary schools and one intermediate building.
It also saw the creation of four new schools in two buildings: Francis McClure, which was renovated and expanded, and Twin Rivers, a new school built on the site of the demolished Cornell Intermediate School. Each building has a grades K-2 and a grades 3-5 school.
Despite changing enrollment patterns during each year of the construction project, which started in 2010, there was little uproar from the community.
“We all knew what was going to happen,” said Terri Kisan, a McKeesport Area school director and the mother of seven children, four of whom still attend McKeesport schools.
Early planning and communication with families over multiple years were also cited in Penn Hills as the reason there were relatively few complaints from the community when the district made big changes. It merged the district’s six elementary schools and spent $40 million to construct a new single elementary building. The elementary consolidation started with the closing of Shenandoah and William Penn elementary schools in 2008.
The new consolidated elementary building opened last week with 1,382 students, counting 34 in pre-kindergarten. While the preK number is the same as last year, the K-4 number is an increase of 121 students or nearly 10 percent.
The consolidation is projected to save Penn Hills as much as $3 million annually.
The move to the new school is not without trepidation. Parents and teachers have concerns about the management of such a large number of students under one roof.
“These kids are going to be overwhelmed by the sheer size,” said art teacher Jackie Kruzic. “It’s going to take a while for them to adapt.”
In Woodland Hills, school board member Tara Reis said consolidation will provide more equal facilities and services, noting the age and quality of current buildings varies.
She said it also might offer more diversity because the current enrollment in the district’s schools is not equally racially diverse.
In North Hills, Highcliff Elementary Principal Elaine Obidowski said her school’s enrollment of nearly 500 provides enough students to balance class sizes in the low 20s and to make compatible mixes of students.
Small schools face the problem of too few students at a grade level for two classes but too many for one.
While space restrictions limited some of the old, smaller schools in North Hills to only half-day kindergarten, the four consolidated elementary schools all have enough room for full-day kindergarten.
Closed schools prospects
The sale of closed buildings brings one-time additional revenue to a district.
Sales prices vary widely. Pittsburgh Reizenstein sold for $5.4 million to a developer who demolished it to expand Bakery Square, but the Boggs Avenue building on Mount Washington sold for just $15,000 to the Mount Washington Community Development Corp.
Some schools can be difficult to sell. Expenses associated with closed schools sitting empty cut into the savings that districts reap from the closings.
In Wilkinsburg, where enrollment has declined 45 percent since 2004, the district closed one of its three elementary schools, Johnston, in 2012 to save $100,000 a year, but it has spent $40,000 a year in utilities and maintenance while it sits empty.
The original asking price of $600,000 has been lowered to $450,000, said business manager Phil Martell.
One plan not for all
Larger new schools aren’t always the best solution, Mr. Buckheit said.
Large schools might not be as effective in communities with large numbers of low-income residents, who might need extra resources and supports, said Mr. Buckheit.
“There’s a risk [to consolidating]. Recent history has shown that schools in low-income areas often do not have the resources needed to support large numbers of students that face these challenges,” he said.
“It’s a tough question for a lot of districts. Obviously, you want to make the maximum, most efficient use out of taxpayer dollars while best serving the students and community. There’s no magic formula to making this determination.”
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