Saltsburg high school 01

CONEMAUGH TOWNSHIP — The Blairsville-Saltsburg school board temporarily hired a retired superintendent to investigate the possibility of reconfiguring or consolidating the district’s schools.

The board voted 7-2 at a special meeting Tuesday to appoint Dr. Charles Koren, who retired in September as Homer-Center School District superintendent, where he served in the position for seven years.

Members Rick Harper, Holly Hall, Molly Stiles, Mary Whitfield, Connie Constantino, Holly Gibson and Anthony “Tim” Canzano voted in favor, with Beverly Caranese and Linda Brown against the motion.

Koren was hired at a rate of $50 per hour with fees not to exceed $20,000.

He will act as in “impartial observer” to gather and present information on reconfiguration, Harper said.

The topic of reconfiguration was raised in December, with a new board majority willing to consider options for combining the district’s schools.

Harper said that Koren contacted district superintendent Jeff Soles and suggested he would be a good fit to take on the facilitator role.

Harper agreed, saying that Koren’s experience in education as well as his knowledge of the area will be beneficial.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Harper said.

He said that the board isn’t interested in Koren’s personal opinion, and that his role is to gather information.

“He is only to facilitate,” Harper said. “I’m not interested in his opinion. I thought this was a good idea because it’s a third-party person who has no dog in the fight and doesn’t care one way or the other.”

Harper said Koren is instructed to provide data that this both pro and con, and that’s it’s not about money, but improved educational opportunity for all students.

At the packed meeting, two audience members spoke during public comment.

Debbie Gallek, who lives in Loyalhanna Township and owns a business in Saltsburg borough, questioned if it was necessary to spend $20,000 for the facilitator.

She asked if the district’s superintendent could perform the job and said he, too, should be impartial to both sides.

“Could our superintendent not do the same job, or is that superintendent more qualified to do it?” she asked. “It’s curious to me as to why we have to hire out.”

Harper replied that the district superintendent’s efforts in running the district occupy most of his time, and noted that it “didn’t end well” for former superintendent Tammy Whitfield, who had compiled similar data for the district in previous years.

Gallek also said she doesn’t understand why the board is considering consolidation, and said if it is for the reason of academics, she doesn’t “see where there’s a problem,” as she believes Saltsburg schools provide a great education.

Harper replied that reconfiguration would open up more educational opportunities for students, with the district being able to offer more elective classes and other options.

Gallek also questioned if former data could be used, and Harper replied that the last study was done in 2014-15, and that new information, such as enrollment and building capacity, needs to be updated.

After the meeting, he said enrollment was declining and that middle/high schools on both sides were operating at about half capacity.

“You can’t run two schools half empty,” he said after the meeting.

The board also heard from Danette Walters, speaking on behalf of the organization Save Our Schools, a group that over the years has lobbied to keep Saltsburg schools open and more recently to split the district into two separate entities.

Walters invited the public to a meeting of SOS, set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23 in the gym at the former Saltsburg Junior/Senior high school.

She said members of the Petrarca Committee — a group of citizens and board members also lobbying to keep Saltsburg schools open and backed by state Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Vandergrift — will discuss information “regarding the looming threat of consolidation.”

Margaret Weaver has served as a Gazette staff writer since 2006. She covers Clymer Borough, the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District and Blairsville court, and also works in the areas of layout, design and editing.