Blairsville-Saltsburg hearing

Among those attending Wednesday’s hearing were, from left, solicitor Ned Nakles, hearing officer Dennis Rafferty and superintendent Philip Martell. Pictured at left is Joel Sansone, an attorney representing the group Save Our Saltsburg Schools.

Bringing the message that closing Saltsburg Middle/High School would destroy a community and diminish area children’s quality of life, parents, students, community members, educators and more pleaded Wednesday with the Blairsville-Saltsburg school board and Pennsylvania Department of Education to allow the school to remain open instead of moving those students to Blairsville.

Hearing officer Dennis Rafferty presided over about five hours of virtual testimony on the first day of the Act 780 hearing, which included a presentation by Superintendent Philip Martell that unveiled a plan to turn SMHS into the Southern Indiana County STEAM Academy for district students in 10th through 12th grades.

The hearing will continue virtually at 5:30 p.m. today to allow for more public testimony.

Ahead of taking comments, which were done by video and audio through Zoom, Rafferty explained the hearing — a step required by the education department prior to closing a school — serves the purpose of providing a forum to involve the public in such decisions.

Statements and exhibits will be sent to PDE to “build a record” for board members to review, he said.

The board must wait 90 days after the hearing to vote on closing the school. 

THE MORE than three dozen people who spoke Wednesday gave multiple reasons to keep SMHS open, citing concerns over longer bus rides, quality of education, inability to socially distance students amid a global COVID-19 pandemic, detrimental effects on the local business community, a loss of Saltsburg identity and more.

Participants were allowed five minutes each to speak, after which they were prompted by Rafferty to conclude their remarks.

Multiple people criticized the school board, saying they believe the board is not acting in the best interest of the children in Saltsburg, instead focusing on finances and bolstering the Blairsville community.

Most also said that in the event of reconfiguration, they would pull their children from the district and place them in an outside cyber school, a move that would cost the district financially and cause a decline in enrollment.

 “I have fully decided that I will cyberschool each and every one of my children, that Blairsville will not get my children,” said Jessica Harkins, who has four kids. “I am not going to risk busing them to the Blairsville School District.”

She said the enrollment numbers presented in the hearing won’t be accurate when students leave the district.

“You have no idea the amount of parents willing to cyberschool their children, because this pandemic has taught us so much,” she said.

Dan Harkins said that, as a parent, safety weighs most on his mind.

“The risk of their lives being in danger increases by the mile, and you’re asking us as parents to just be OK with that,” he said. “No.”

He said having Saltsburg students in Blairsville places them far from home in the event of an emergency, which is “unacceptable and unnecessary.”

He touted the one-on-one time teachers spend with Saltsburg students and wondered when students would have time for extracurricular activities, homework and for being with family.

If the tables were turned, he said, nobody from Blairsville would want this for their children: “Every single one would say no,” he said. “If you say yes, you’re lying.”

He said students who participate in sports would be crunched for time with the distance affecting participation.

“I’m sure all you enjoy eating dinner with your families,” he said. “We would lose that in our lives.”

Robert Conrad, with three children in the Blairsville schools, expressed concern about the pandemic, saying even now that he can’t get an answer to whether children are spaced 6 feet apart.

He said the education process is his “biggest concern,” as students can be left behind more easily in larger classes than smaller ones.

Jessica Clawson, of Saltsburg, said the community is facing destruction and called it a “hostile takeover” that is “hasty, reckless and poorly planned.”

She said the board has not explored any alternative options and has “one and only one goal: to close the Saltsburg Middle/High School at any cost.”

She suggested finding ways to build up the district and increase enrollment instead.

“This board is prepared to make a decision to close a school before ever seeing a comprehensive plan with the cost on how that will be done. They are putting the cart before the horse and then expecting the administration to figure out how to fit a square peg into a round hole after the fact.”

She said a “logical approach” would be a referendum.

Speaker after speaker echoed similar concerns. The hearing, which ran a little more than six hours, will reconvene virtually at 5:30 p.m. Those who had internet issues when speaking Wednesday may speak again as well.

To view tonight’s session, visit www.b-ssd.org for instructions.

Continuing coverage will be included in Friday’s edition of the Gazette.

SPEAKING PRIOR to the public comment, Martell’s presentation focused on “Breaking Barriers and Building Futures.”

His presentation, which he said will be available soon on the district’s website, identified issues such as declining enrollment and revenue, unbalanced class sizes and inefficient operations.

Martell’s presentation showed that, per PDE capacity and based on the 2020-21 enrollment, Blairsville Elementary School is 36.8 percent empty, and Saltsburg Elementary School is 43 percent empty, with Blairsville-Middle High School at 52 percent and SMHS at 57 percent.

He also talked on “unbalanced” class sizes, saying at BMHS, 55.5 percent of classes have 15 or fewer students, with that number at 68.4 percent at SMHS.

While small classes are “great to have,” he said, when there are too few students in a class, it can be “not challenging enough” for the students.

Martell said that while instructional expenses are rising, enrollment is declining, which will mean less revenue for the district.

The district, he said, needs to prepare to maintain its fund balance, which will be depleted by 2024-25 if the district remains status quo.

By addressing these issues with reconfiguration, Martell said, it would allow for more opportunities for students to prepare for successful careers.

The highlight of Martell’s presentation was the creation of the Southern Indiana County STEAM Academy, to be located at SMHS. Focusing on science, technology, engineers, arts and mathematics, the academy would be open to district students beginning their sophomore year.

The academy would offer nine new career paths: mechatronics/robotics; pre-engineering/additive manufacturing; cybersecurity; logistics, materials and supply chain management; dental hygienist; homeland security –police, firefighter, EMS, cyberterrorism; electrician/electrical occupations; sport therapy/PT assistant; and diesel tech-NVI partnership.

An apprenticeship program would be included in all areas of study.

Students would attend the academy for both their regular classes as well as special areas of study.

A timeline shows the academy would be created over a two-year period.

At Blairsville, the reconfiguration changes would allow for the creation of the Blairsville-Saltsburg Middle High School Center for Innovation, Saltsburg Elementary School Design Central Studio and Blairsville Elementary Media Center in “hubs for learning” in reimagined space, Martell said.

“The creation and transformation of these new STEAM spaces really does expand opportunities and choice for our student,” he said.

Martell said the plan could offer a fully functioning television studio, recording studio and editing station, Peloton fitness center, virtual reality studio and large group instruction areas in Blairsville.

Addressing other aspects of reconfiguration, Martell also spoke on sports, suggesting student/community selection of a new district mascot and school colors with intent of “creating an identity while bringing people together.” He also suggested the creation of a task force to look at possible locations for a new joint athletic facility.

A timeline showed a potential board decision after a ballot process for students that would have the board voting on those aspects of sports in June.

Members of the public criticized Martell’s proposal for a variety of reasons, including the announcement of an idea that had not been discussed at regular board meetings.

“None of us had the chance to see that presentation ahead of time and review or digest the information, and that’s completely unacceptable,” Clawson said in her comments. “Not to mention, not a single cost was included.”

Joel Sansone, an attorney representing the group Save Our Saltsburg Schools, said he was disappointed the presentation wasn’t made available in advance to analyze. He said the presentation contained “not much in the way of specifics” including finances and impact on students, families and the community.

Sansone also asked why none of the questions presented previously by Kathy Muir, president of the district’s teachers’ union, have been answered.

He noted that it is the group’s intent to present “strong objections” to the board and PDE and questioned the expertise of those who provided information in previous reconfiguration presentations.

“Mr. Martell’s presentation was a lot of fluff and no meat,” Sansone said. “You remember the commercial from years ago, where the old lady said ‘where’s the beef?’ Mr. Martell, where’s the beef? Where is the explanation of how all of these things will impact students?”

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.