A pair of contradictory school alignment plans have been adopted by the Indiana Area school board, and which becomes reality would hinge on the will of voters in the Indiana Area School District.
For the first time since the enactment of the Act 1 school tax law in 2006, residents of an Indiana County school district would be asked to approve a real estate tax increase at a rate higher than the economic index limit set by Pennsylvania Department of Education — in this case, a 12 mill boost is proposed. The increase of 11.5 percent from 105.59 to 117.59 mills would raise the tax bill on the median property by $456.
The boost is part of a plan to maintain attendance patterns at all six schools, hire enough teachers to reduce class sizes to optimum levels, add staff needed for the Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTII) learning improvement program, and to improve access at Horace Mann Elementary School.
The board also approved a plan to move all pre-kindergarten through third-grade students to East Pike and Ben Franklin elementary schools, all fourth- and fifth-graders to Eisenhower and Horace Mann schools, to improve access at Horace Mann and hire staff for RTII.
The choices were among nine presented for consideration, and the directors voted on each one.
Four options failed when each gained no more than one vote in favor.
After agreeing on “Option 5,” the realignment plan, by a 6-3 vote, the directors unanimously defeated two more choices and rejected another by an 8-1 vote — even though some directors said the matter should have ended when the fifth option was passed.
But following more debate, the directors voted 7-2 on “Option 9” to propose the 12 mill tax hike and keep schools as they are.
The referendum would be held May 20 in conjunction with the spring primary election, simply by adding the question to the existing ballots for precincts that are part of the district, but the board has more options in the meantime because the board doesn’t have the power to make a future financial commitment before an election.
The options could change with a shift in board makeup after November. At least two and possibly three new directors could be seated after the election one week from today.
With a goal of cutting just over $1 million of expenses to balance the 2014-15 budget, the district could find significant savings through attrition with an as-yet-unknown number of teacher retirements.
If the referendum is held, the proposed tax increase could be smaller.
In reality, school officials said, the administration will prepare to implement both options. Teachers and staff may spend the spring packing classroom furnishings to get ready for realignment, but stop short of moving boxes out of their buildings if voters on May 20 approve the money needed to add teachers and leave the attendance patterns unchanged.
“We’ll plan on realignment happening and if the referendum passes and the board then passes the millage increase, when they vote on it, I assume they would cancel the realignment,” Superintendent Dale Kirsch said. “We have to do all the planning.”
The amount of the proposed tax increase could be different.
“It could be whatever the board determines. … This board cannot tie the hands of the incoming board.”
The votes on the nine proposals were spread out over an hour’s time (59 minutes) as board members sounded out their own philosophies. That all followed more than a half-hour of public comment, much of it from district parents and students hoping to influence the vote.
Rob Stewart, the parent of a student Horace Mann, urged the board to cut costs by closing a school rather than cutting programs.
“We have one building too many and we simply cannot afford to maintain the buildings and meet the district’s mission statement,” Stewart said. “We’ve heard people from the community say their child may cry if they close a school. This is true; even my child may cry. But they will stop crying, and this is a teachable moment to discuss that, just like the mission statement states, this is a changing world.”
High school seniors Ashley Garonzi and Lexy Manioci asked the board to realign the elementary schools and to preserve the wide range of elective classes offered at Indiana Area Senior High School.
“Listen to the parents,” resident Matt Baumer told the board. “Put grade realignment on the shelf, and request a sufficient tax rate to adequately fund the district in the future. There may be a time soon when the board can seek lower rates, but to do so in the face of skyrocketing costs that the district cannot control is not prudent, and will harm the district mission to provide an excellent education to its students.
Tom Kauffman questioned whether the board had enough information to make a lasting decision.
“Does this solve the problem or does this buy us time, what I call the snooze effect? Hitting the snooze button knowing that in a few years, the alarm is going to go off again?” he asked. “I don’t see how this board can vote to realign the elementary schools or put fifth-graders in the junior high without having any data from child development people, education specialists, teachers and parents. … How does maintaining four buildings under any proposal do anything but just put this decision off for a few more years?”
Parents Stephanie Josephowicz and Darlene Sexton advocated for keeping their children in the same schools as long as possible, citing stress and regression that they said children experience when they switch schools.
Board member David Ferguson also remained opposed to rearranging the attendance areas and moving children out of the schools that their parents want them to attend.
“No one has given this voice, apart from few parents who are saying, ‘This is my choice and you’re dissing my choice,’” he said. “It’s not just the people who live in the borough. It’s every family with kids in our schools that will be affected. It’s an equal opportunity offender as far as I’m concerned.”
Ferguson, who called all the options “false choices,” was alone in his vote in favor of realigning the Indiana Borough schools to house pre-K to second grade at Eisenhower school and third- to fifth-grade students at Horace Mann, and making no changes at Ben Franklin or East Pike schools, saying it would cause the least disruption.
Former board member Douglas Steve questioned the options as they appeared on the agenda because none mentioned how much the district would save by choosing them.
Board member Diana Paccapaniccia raised the same objection as she voted against all but one option, a proposal to close Horace Mann Elementary School, add six to 10 classrooms and the remaining schools and budget for RTII staff.
“To even anticipate a 12 mill increase when we have other options before us is very hard. I can’t support this. I’m flabbergasted that it would even be considered. And if we’re going to make that a decision, why not put out the decision about closing a school as a referendum?
“Kids have problems with transitions and it’s not educationally sound,” she said. “We’re trying to make decisions when we don’t have all the facts before us. We don’t know how much RTII is, we don’t really know how much it is to make Horace Mann accessible.”
Director Walter Schroth led the call for the board to approve the final option, to keep the current school alignment and to raise the tax to cover staffing needs.
“What we’re about to do here will have a profound impact that could last as long as 20 years,” Schroth said. “I’ve listened to the comments and there’s a pretty strong undercurrent that says, ‘Go ahead and raise my taxes. It’s OK.’ And I think that the citizens of the district, because of the long-term impact of this, need to be able to weigh in on this.
“Option 9 gives them the ability to resolve financial issues and more importantly it also brings up our guidelines for our classrooms and resolves our RTII issues.”
Schroth said he personally isn’t in favor of a 12 mill increase “but if the residents are, then so be it. But if they aren’t, then Option 5 becomes the alternative if they don’t pass the referendum.”
Alison Billon argued for saving money by closing a school.
“It is about our resources, it’s about how we spend our money. It’s more costly to run six buildings than it is to administer five, and that’s fact,” Billon said. “We have failed to address this problem and make the hard decision. I’m so happy to finally hear some people in the community stepping forward and saying, ‘It really is just a building. It’s OK to close it. We’ll be all right — we want to have the latest and greatest curriculum, good technology and high-quality teachers who will make a difference for our students.’
“Thank you for those who have been brave enough to say that.”
Billon was the only director voting for options to consider moving fifth grade to the junior high school and closing either Horace Mann or Eisenhower schools, and an option to keep fifth grade in place and to close Eisenhower school, adding six to 10 classrooms at the remaining schools.
Of the motions that passed, directors Schroth, Thomas Harley, Brian Petersen, Robert Werner, Hilliary Creely and Robert Gongaware favored the “Option 5” realignment plan while Paccapaniccia, Billon and Ferguson were opposed.
Board members Harley, Creely, Ferguson, Gongaware, Petersen, Schroth and Werner favored “Option 9,” which includes the referendum, while Billon and Paccapaniccia were opposed.
Text of remarks by Matt Baumer, of Indiana:
I would like to address the proposed grade realignment plans, but also the financial reasons why we are considering them in the first place. In the academic committee meeting on October 14, it was clear that the district is indeed in a difficult financial situation. However, it was also abundantly clear that many parents do not like any of the proposed grade realignment schemes, and that closing an elementary school is also not a good option because it means moving the 5th grade to the junior high.
What is also clear is that the board is pursuing two contradictory goals that are irreconcilable in the current situation. On the one hand the board is trying to hold tax increases to a minimum, even in the face of increases in health care and PSERS pension costs that far outstrip inflation. On the other hand the board is trying to maintain educational excellence, which is only possible through adequate funding. In recent years the board has requested tax increases that are now underfunding the district by a considerable amount. While some costs can be cut, the large majority cannot, due to labor contracts and state requirements.
With the limits of Act 1, this siutation will not only continue, but will get worse every year, forcing more draconian cuts in the future. Even if the grade realignment plan saves a modest amount, as is promised but hardly guaranteed, we will be facing more and more cuts as long as the board seeks unrealistically low tax rates.
In my view the solution is clear: listen to the parents. Put grade realignment on the shelf, and request a sufficient tax rate to adequtely fund the district in the future. There may be a time soon when the board can seek lower rates, but do so in the face of skyrocketing costs that the district cannot control is not prudent, and will harm the district mission to provide an excellent education to its students.
Comments by board president Thomas Harley to open the meeting:
A few months ago the Board decided to look at the AP classes. The rumors spread like wildfire that we were going to destroy the AP program, furlough teachers, and destroy democracy. Upon a brief investigation we found a very healthy set of AP classes that were highly successful; with a few above 90% (defined as 3 and above). Two were not performing at this level and some changes have been made to raise the level of their success. The Board did not eliminate a single class but perhaps strengthened the program.
More recently we decided to take a look at the graduation requirements. Immediately the rumor-mill kicked in with a similar output of rumors as facts. The immediate assumption is that we intend to reduce the rigor and the requirements to the determent of our students. Our mission is to provide a premier education program to our students. The graduation requirements are an expression of the mission and a critical factor in achieving that success
This review should be done periodically and with some frequency in this ever-changing world. The last time they were reviewed; I think Regan might have been president, Gore was inventing the Internet while cyber schooling, blended learning and the University of Phoenix were just interesting ideas.
I have several questions that I’d like answered. Why do we have no language requirement? Why do we require 4 years of gym but only 3 of math? How can we incorporate distance-learning opportunities or address the blended program in our graduation requirements. How can we enable our students to earn college credits while in high school? How can we work closer with IUP and WCCC to enhance our students learning? There are examples of actual college classes being taught in the high schools across PA for dual credit. There is a district in NJ that graduates their students with both a high school and a two-year college diploma.
Standing still is a choice and sometimes it is right and sometimes it is not. We will graduate 200 seniors this spring and take in 225 kindergarteners next fall that will not wait. We must make decisions that will serve our children best interest. This mission requires us to ask difficult questions and listen to the answers. We must not fear change.
How many people here remember when we did not allow calculators to be used on tests? How many people remember life before portable phones, let alone full fledge computers with tiny screens? Change is upon us whether we like It or not.
Tonight we bring to the Board several motions concerning the nature of our elementary program. I invite you to speak doing the public comment section of the agenda. I remind you that you will be limited to 3 minutes each and I have asked Ms. Markle to prompt you at the two and a half minute mark. Please do not be repetitive of previous remarks and let’s maintain our common decency.
Thank you for being here tonight and caring about the education of our children.
Tom Harley, President
Indiana Area school Board