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INDIANA: School realignment hearing draws crowd /READ RESIDENTS' COMMENTS

by and and on October 08, 2013 11:00 AM

Proposals for realigning the enrollment and attendance areas of Indiana Area School District elementary schools weathered a wave of criticism Monday at a meeting of a school board committee.

More than 100 district residents turned out for a two-phase information session — a round of residents’ comments on the plans, followed by district officials’ response to written questions sent earlier by email and by those at the meeting.

While the changes are largely meant to save money, the residents said their children’s education and personal lives would suffer if realignment is enacted.

Although under study for several months, the issue has drawn heightened attention since Sept. 23, when the school board set Oct. 28 as a target date to decide whether to change the elementary school configuration.

District administrators have drafted a series of options for use of four elementary schools that each house kindergarten through fifth-grade students, mainly to combat rising costs for the district. Some of the options call for grouping students in schools by grade levels rather than by neighborhood, and one calls for closing a yet-to-be-determined school and possibly moving fifth-graders to the junior high school.

Of the choices, maintaining status quo costs the most and would require more than 10 additional teachers to meet the district’s class size guidelines.

District administrators say realigned schools would need fewer teachers — which could be accomplished through attrition — and mean more focus on gifted and special needs students, maintaining arts programs, less sharing of teachers and easier management of changes in enrollment.

One of the recommendations calls for holding kindergarten and first-grade classes in two buildings and assigning second- through fifth-grade students to two others.

District Superintendent Dale Kirsch said the state’s Act 1 school tax law has limited the district’s ability to raise the property tax enough to pay for all that the district now provides.

“Finances and our inability to fund the increasing costs of retirement and health care are forcing these decisions,” Kirsch said. “We are faced with having to reduce the 2014-15 budget by approximately $1.2 million … (which) equates to 12 professional staff positions. We anticipate an above average number of retirements before next school year so now is the right time to plan for these reductions so we do not have to furlough staff.”

But the changes would bring other costs not measured in dollars, some parents said.

“Research shows that students do best with fewer transitions between schools,” resident Dina Baunoch said. “This would mean a lot of cracks for little kids to fall through.”

Now, Baunoch said, she has three students attending two schools. But with realignment, they all would be separated from each other.

[See full text of Dina Baunoch comments following story.]

Eric Barker also asked the board to make research-based decisions.

“Rather than based more on political winds … look at data-driven and proven research on what improves education,” Barker said. “Do not be afraid to raise revenue if needed. Sometimes, I feel it’s a missed opportunity if (the district) doesn’t raise taxes. If there’s no tax increase, with the rate of inflation, it means you are actually cutting the budget.”

Tamara Leeper told the board that the Franklin-Regional School District in Westmoreland County realigned its elementary schools — then reversed to its original configuration.

“Just do the research,” Leeper said.

Former school board member Douglas Steve criticized the board’s handling of the proposal, calling for more study before making a decision.

“We have not heard from our educational people, our principals, our curriculum coordinator, on what would be the best scenario and cause the least disruption for the curriculum, K though 12,” Steve said. “It’s very important to hear from our educators.”

Steve called for the board to delay a decision until January or February.

“Moving kids two or three times creates a lot of havoc,” Rob Dillon told the directors. He encouraged the board to consider closing one building and changing the attendance areas.

Thomas Kauffman, a parent of two Eisenhower Elementary School students, urged the board to find the money needed to keep the schools as they are.

He told of how his young children were upset after being in day care together and being separated when the older one moved on to kindergarten, and said he didn’t want them to be separated again through realignment.

“Children flourish when there is consistency, permanency, familiarity,” Kauffman said. “Transitions, changes and moves are tough on all people, especially children. So I think those types of things should be avoided at all costs.”

“Kids are going to lose out on the pride they have in their schools,” said Erik Templeton, recalling the years he attended Horace Mann Elementary School. “We’re not thinking enough about the kids and what it means to them.”

Stephanie Josephowicz, the mother of a Horace Mann first-grader, said realignment also would disrupt parents’ investment in getting involved in the schools.

“We have opportunities for parents to be involved in the classrooms … we would lose that sense in our community.

“With my daughter in first grade, I’ve been there a year and seven weeks. I’m still on the learning curve, figuring out how things work,” she said. “But in a realignment plan, if it’s a K-1 realignment, next year I would be starting all over again along with my daughter having to make difficult transitions into a new building and unknown circumstances.”

Two members of Indiana Borough council, Peter Broad and Richard Thorell, expressed “dismay” over the potential loss of the neighborhood school concept.

“We’ve heard that the only reason to make these changes is financial … that will not help the education of any children,” Peter Broad said. “As a member of council, I want to strongly urge you to reconsider taking our community schools and turning them into something other than community schools. Council has worked hard to make Indiana a place where families want to live and the schools are an integral part of that.”

Sarah Bond said dividing the students by age groups would mean breaking up some programs that now group children by ability.

Sara Wesner told the directors that some students, such as her daughter, cannot easily adapt to changing schools.

“Transition will cause regression for her,” she said.

[See full text of Sara Wesner comments following the story.]

Wesner also said that proposed changes in the times classes begin and end might force her or her husband to quit work to handle different child care needs.

Working as the Academic and Extracurricular Committee, the directors held the session to collect input and report back to the full school board, said chairman Brian Petersen. But most of the board took in the session first hand: board President Thomas Harley, Vice President Walter Schroth, Hilliary Creely, David Ferguson and Robert Werner are on the committee, and Diana Paccapaniccia attended the meeting as a spectator.

Harley said the district has little choice but to cut spending or raise the tax.

“We didn’t make up this problem. We paid about $2 million more to PSERS (the retirement fund) and about $1 million more to health care — that’s $3 million out of last year’s budget that didn’t go to educating the kids,” Harley said. “Right now looking at the budget, we’re $1.2 million out of balance with a 2 mill tax increase projected in next year’s budget.

“What you’re asking for, what I’m hearing today, is you will defend the board if we raised taxes 6 mills over the next three or four years to pay for this. We have to raise about 1ᄑ to 2 mills more than we have right now just to break even.”

That would leave the district unable to improve education, he said.

“We’re not staffing the high school properly, we’re certainly not staffing the elementary schools properly. So if we want anything to change, we have to raise income. We have to raise revenue. That’s the only choice we have,” Harley said. “What we’re looking at is finding ways to provide a better education and making more efficient use of facilities and our staff.”

Ferguson said the board has not decided what do to, but hinted at how he might vote on Oct. 28.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to note that the past decisions I have made as a board member and that my colleagues on the board have been taken in the best interest of the students,” Ferguson said. “I have felt strongly that we keep neighborhood schools because there are positive things associated with that, some of which are academic and many are social, but we have lots of reasons for that and it goes back to understanding what would be best for our kids.

“There are well-intentioned ideas going into some of the proposals put before you, and those similarly have some (basis) in what’s best for kids. But the frustration we’re having is that there’s a great balancing act.

“I am quite certain that I will wind up disagreeing with more members of the board than I agree on this vote. But … I will have had my say and I will have to stand by that decision. And my hope is that regardless of what decision is made that … while competing interests for the future of our district may exist … that there is some sense of what is best for our students.”

Petersen said the board would continue to accept public comment on the proposals at meetings on Oct. 14 and 28, before voting on the possible elementary realignment.

PHOTO: Erik Templeton, of Indiana, brought his son, Liam, 4, with him to Monday night’s meeting where he addressed the school board.

Templeton’s daughter attends Horace Mann Elementary School. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)


 

Full text of comments delivered by district resident Dina Baunoch:

My name is Dina Baunoch, and I am mother of three, living two blocks from Eisenhower Elementary where two of my children currently attend. I am an active member of the PTA, and have a background in child development as well as a lifetime of work with young children. I am grateful to get to share my thoughts today.

Some in my same position might complain about the inconvenience that a realignment would bring, having to take 3 young children to 2-3 school buildings, to attend 2-3 different conferences and activities, and to participate in 2-3 different PTA’s…
After all, my husband and I did choose to live where we live so our kids could attend the quiet little secret that is Eisenhower Elementary. We assumed we’d be walking our children to school, watching them enter the building together, and that once inside they would not only have each other, but the same team of educators for the duration of their k-5 years.

But I’m not here to complain about inconvenience. If a realignment would be of great benefit to my kids, then any sacrifices would be well worth it. But the research already indicates that re-alignment will NOT support better Academics since students do best with the fewest transitions. I believe a realignment of any kind would put all our kids at risk and set them up for unnecessary struggle.

Our k-5 kids are only beginning the process of building strong and VITAL relationships with their teachers, principal, nurse, specialists, and school counselor; a realignment would disrupt this process repeatedly. Our children would become perpetual transfer students. They would LEAVE their community resources all too soon, only to start all over again. They would also be separated often from siblings, and older student mentors, losing that support as well. It is upsetting to think that if a realignment went into effect, our kids would experience these transitions twice before they ever get to middle school! Those are a lot of cracks for small children to fall through. And special needs and high risk kids stand to lose the most by this many transitions.  

A kindergarten teacher friend of mine at a k-2 school in Michigan said she missed not getting to see her kindergarteners grow up. And since her school held so many kindergartens due to the specialization, she rarely got to teach the siblings of her students. She told me kids came and went too fast, and she felt very disconnected. She also noted that when her school’s PTA changed over so frequently, it made it hard to get anything done due to the adjustment periods. The same parents don’t stay long enough, and their attentions are split between too many schools. They are not as invested.
Realignment WILL disjoint and compromise our valuable school communities, when our school communities act as one of the MOST vital resources in the academic success of our young children.

Thank you.


Full text of comments delivered by district resident Sara Wesner:

I am a mother of a kindergartener. Your decisions will affect our family and families like mine the most. You see my child has special needs. She has Down syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and Rule-out Autism. She has spent 2 ½ years in Head start. She began at Arin’s head start in Homer City, and then stayed at Indiana for 2 years. During her time at Indian she made incredible progress. The routines, the building, and the playground were the same; the staff were all familiar to her. Her second year at Indiana, she had new teachers, but she recognized them, so she felt comfortable with them from day one. Since her transition to kindergarten we have seen some devastating regression. She does not excel in new and unfamiliar environments. It takes her time to adjust. It takes the staff time to acclimate themselves with her needs, her communication, and her style of learning. These are all things the wonderful staff at Eisenhower are currently doing. We are now in our 7th week of school and she is finally making progress. She is still not to the standards we hold for her at home or to the abilities she presented during her last few months at head start, but she is getting there.

I put a great deal of time and effort, unpaid mind you, into creating relationships with every staff member, from teachers, the principal, the nurse, the aide, and each special’s educator. This investment provides our daughter with better-educated staff to meet her individual needs. This 2 way communication street allows staff to come to me with important matter and also less pressing matters that lead to the benefit of my child, your staff, or her peers.

How exactly do these 2 proposed plans create a situation that is, as quoted on your PowerPoint, “better able to focus on students with higher needs”? Because Eisenhower is already doing an incredible job just how we have things. If we are to progress with either of the two remaining proposed plans, by the time she reaches high school she will have had to transition 6 times. That to me is insane. That will in no way help my child reach her full potential. She will have spent at the very least 1 full year regressing and working so hard to gain back skills she has already acquired. That is redundant, unnecessary, and a failure on this school district’s part.

I would also like to voice concerns with the earlier start times. We are a society of predominately 2 working parent households or single parent homes. Most professional jobs begin their day at 8am. My daughter currently attends school from 9am-3:45pm. Starting at 7:30am will require either my husband or myself to give up our career. Or we will be forced to look for someone other than ourselves to transport our daughter to school, a privilege I hold dearly. If we cannot, which we can’t, afford to give up half of our income, we will be forced to place her in after school daycare or hire a babysitter. We will be forced to sacrifice our income or subject our daughter to a potentially dangerous extrafamilial caretaker, which is a known cause of anxiety for our child. I beg you to reconsider the social economic statuses within our community when readjusting the start and end of their school day.

I also beg you to remember that our children do not need instability to meet your budgeting needs.


 



Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.


Teri Enciso is a photographer for The Indiana Gazette.



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