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ARMSTRONG: Elderton closing weighed again

by HEATHER ROTH on March 09, 2012 2:15 AM

FORD CITY -- Citing increased costs and the threat of a multi-million dollar deficit, the Armstrong School District Board of School Directors agreed Thursday to start the months-long process of closing Elderton Junior-Senior High School, for the second time in four years, as well as Kittanning Township Elementary School.

And, in a related matter, director Royce Smeltzer asked the board to support the efforts of Plumcreek Township, Elderton Borough and South Bend Township to explore secession.

"So no matter what you do, if you don't look at cutting some of the overhead costs … you can't keep the district functioning," said Superintendent Stan Chapp.

Chapp said the fund balance should be at about 8 percent of the district's budget; but it has dipped "extraordinarily low" to $1.9 million, he said; and by the 2013-14 school year, the district will face a projected $9.5 million deficit, he said.

Some of that is due to increased health care costs, salary increases without any additional state subsidies and retirement contributions, he said.

He also said the decision to cut taxes by 2 mills last year contributed to the problem, as did the delay and change of plans for the $80 million borrowed for renovations. After the Department of Education denied reimbursement for renovations, ASD has been left making payments on the bond without any state help, at least until a new plan is approved by the state.

"I don't think everybody realizes" the financial situation, said director Amy Lhote, asking that Chapp outline the reasons behind considering closing the two schools. "These harsh decisions need to be made. We don't take this lightly."

If the board wants to close either school for the upcoming school year, they're almost out of time. A vote to close a school must be made before the end of June; and that vote must come at least three months after a public hearing.

A public hearing must be advertised 15 days in advance.

That leaves the district with a margin of just a few days.

"We're pinched (for time). You can always go backward," said director James Rearic, who floated the idea of closing schools for short-term savings.

The board has been discussing long-term ways to cut operating expenses, and on Thursday night a number of directors expressed support for a new 7-12 grade high school for the Kittanning and Ford City areas, including students from Kittanning and Rayburn townships who now attend Elderton Junior-Senior High School.

Under that plan, Elderton would be closed and those students not attending the new high school would attend West Shamokin Junior-Senior High School.

But Rearic said the board needs to look at immediate savings for the next few years, while the planning and potentially the construction phases continue.

The board agreed to ask the administration to advertise a public hearing concerning closing both Elderton Junior-Senior High School and Kittanning Township Elementary School for 7 p.m. March 26 at Lenape Elementary School.

Several people from the Elderton area expressed frustration during the meeting that the hearing was not scheduled at Elderton, with people calling out from the audience to hold the meeting in the school that was going to be closed.

But board President Joe Close said this morning that the location of the hearing wouldn't change the information that would be communicated and that he didn't hear any board member suggest holding the hearing at Elderton.

"It's what the suggestions were, and I went with those suggestions. I wasn't hearing anything" about Elderton from board members, he said. "We were there enough times in the past. In my opinion, nothing's changed from before. … We're already faced with the problems we have and it is what it is."

At the end of the open caucus meeting, Smeltzer asked the board to approve a resolution at the next meeting offering the board's support for Elderton Borough and Plumcreek and South Bend townships to explore secession.

"I've really tried to make the new school work for all the students," he said.

Smeltzer had pushed the board to build a high school large enough to include all the Elderton attendance area, rather than send those students to West Shamokin. But the larger the high school, the greater the costs to build it, and the administration has said there is room at West Shamokin for the Elderton students.

The other board directors had expressed concerns over the cost of a larger school, and not using West Shamokin to its capacity. Instead, they were discussing bringing some of those Elderton students who were closer to the proposed new school there and sending the rest to West Shamokin.

So Smeltzer said the Elderton area would explore leaving the district and joining another.

"I want that community to make that decision," he said. "It would right-size the district."

The Elderton area tried before to secede. In 2009 it tried to leave the Armstrong School District and join Apollo-Ridge School District. But that effort fell short when Apollo-Ridge decided to oppose the effort.

"We learned from our mistakes, and we'll make it work this time," Smeltzer said.

The board will vote on a resolution Monday expressing support for the exploration of secession, but several directors expressed support verbally Thursday.

"The community's right to explore," Rearic said.

Director Chris Choncek agreed. "I'm certainly willing to let you guys explore," he said.

Smeltzer said after the meeting that he hasn't spoken with other school districts yet, but that he intends to hold meetings in the affected areas to determine whether there's support among residents for the secession effort before pushing forward.

The board's voting meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday in the administration building in Ford City.

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