indiana area senior high school totem sign

The Indiana Area school board has set the district calendar for the 2019-20 school year. It provides additional in-service days earmarked for teacher training in social-emotional learning (SEL) and literacy programs, and calls for classes to begin earlier than usual.

After some debate over holding classes in August, the board voted 7 to 2 to adopt the calendar.

District Superintendent Michael Vuckovich said the calendar better aligns Indiana with other area school districts and the Indiana County Technology Center, although it has some variances.

“They’re starting kids on (Aug.) 21st and we’re starting on the 22nd, so that’s one day later, which I don’t find to be terribly invasive,” Vuckovich said. “I’m still trying to give some consideration to our own team being in the buildings and the temperatures of the buildings. And we’ll end two days later.”

A calendar approved in February by the ICTC joint operating committee lists Friday, May 29, 2020, as the last day of classes for tech center students.

“It’s the best we could do. It also gives our teachers the time they need to plan. … It’s the best compromise we could meet with the idea of starting late and trying to be in line (with other county schools). It’s the best I could do to take in both views,” Vuckovich said.

Board member Doug Steve opposed the calendar, and voted no, because it has students in class early.

“When it’s 65 degrees, it gets to be in the low 80s in the classrooms in Ben Franklin,” Steve said. “Plus you have all the activities starting the same week … and they would have to practice in the heat of the day as well, at 3 o’clock, instead of practicing early in the morning.”

He said the calendar caters to a small minority of the district’s students.

“I understand you want to get close to the ICTC, but we have about 70 kids that go to ICTC and that’s 2ᄑ percent of our population and that’s dictating to the other 97ᄑ percent.”

Steve also lamented the loss of the “soft start kindergarten,” a program that opened the kindergarten classrooms a week earlier than the official opening day and gave youngsters a chance to get acquainted with their surroundings.

Director Tamara Leeper agreed with the heat issue and joined Steve in voting no.

Board members Ute Lowery and Tom Harley led the support for Indiana to match up with the tech center calendar.

“It’s not that many days. Maybe it’s an opportunity for Mr. (Greg) Trout and the maintenance staff to find some ways to get some air circulating in the buildings. I think we can be creative; I think we can solve this,” Lowery said. “We’re not talking weeks.”

Harley proposed changing some of the in-service days to achieve even greater alignment with the ICTC schedule.

“We’re talking about 80 kids. That’s 10 percent of our high school,” Harley said. “Just because we have an Act 80 day doesn’t mean they can’t go to the ICTC.

“I like the direction you’re going. If the weather is too hot, the superintendent has the ability to cancel school, change the times or send them home for a half day, do whatever is necessary.

“My point is I think it’s time that Indiana stopped thinking that the rest of the county has to align with us, and we need to be good neighbors.”

Board President Walter Schroth and members John Barbor, Barbara Barker, Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro and Terry Kerr joined Lowery and Harley in passing the calendar.

The calendar provides five official district holidays: Monday, Sept. 2 (Labor Day); Monday, Nov. 11 (Veterans Day); Friday, Nov. 29 (the day after Thanksgiving); Thursday, Dec. 26 (the day after Christmas); and Friday, April 10, 2020 (Good Friday).

It also lists seven full and two half in-service days for teachers, upon approval of the state Department of Education. The full days are set for Friday, Oct. 11, and Monday, Oct. 14, providing a long Columbus Day weekend for students; Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, giving teachers an early end to a two-week Christmas and New Year’s break; Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, Martin Luther King Day; Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, preceding Presidents Day; and Friday, March 20, and Monday, March 23, 2020, providing a four-day weekend for students. Half days are set for Friday, May 8, 2020, and Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

Paul McCue, president of the Indiana Area Education Association teachers’ union, praised the board’s decision on the calendar.

“I’d like to thank the board for the thoughtful consideration put into the 2019-20 school calendar. I understand all the competing forces you need to consider when planning the upcoming school year,” McCue said. “Thank you for your thoughtful discussion and for doing your best to balance the needs of the students, community, faculty and staff. I know it’s a very tough decision.”

The school board also voted to renew a contract with Student Transportation of America of Pennsylvania, headquartered in Bridgeville, Allegheny County, as the district’s school bus service provider for five more years through June 30, 2024.

The contract sets the rates the district will pay STA — which took over the district’s former bus contractor, Krise Bus Service, of Punxsutawney — for each of six different sized vehicles. It also calls for a $15 per-hour field trip rate and mileage reimbursement at $2 a mile for 2019-20.

The top rates are $253.75 per day for 65 to 78 passenger buses, 36 to 64 passenger buses and wheelchair-accessible vans.

The rates will increase by 3 percent in the second and third years, then rise according to the local consumer price index — but no less than 2 percent or more than 3 percent — in the fourth and fifth years.

The 19-page agreement requires STA to store and operate Indiana’s buses at the district’s bus yard along East Pike, stipulates that the company is responsible for all state laws for drivers and vehicles, and requires STA to run no buses that are more than 10 years old and to maintain the bus fleet at an average age of no more than five years.

All the buses are to be equipped with GPS systems compatible with the school district’s tracking software; they’re required to have two-way radios, surveillance cameras, auxiliary heaters, intercom systems and air brakes.

The contract addresses alternative fuels.

“The district prefers and the contractor concurs to use buses that require propane fuel as opposed to diesel or gasoline whenever possible,” according to the Fuel Costs provision. STA has to pay a base price for all fuel, but the district will pay the excess for tax-free gasoline or diesel that costs more than $2.50 a gallon and for tax-free propane that runs more than $1.10 a gallon.

The contract also stipulates that STA officials may advise the school administration of road conditions during times of bad weather, but the bus company has no hand in deciding whether to close schools or delay classes. STA is required to provide buses at the times decided by the school superintendent or other administrator.

The board approved the contract after discussing the terms with district Solicitor Ron Repak during a closed door executive session, according to Schroth and Vuckovich. The agenda categorized the contract as an “attorney” matter but the school officials didn’t explain why the deliberation of open bids could not be held in public.

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.