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Park Township residents speak up for Laurel Point Elementary School

| Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, 2:16 a.m.
Cheyenne Cramer, a fifth-grader at Kiski Area Upper Elementary School but was enrolled at Laurel Point Elementary School last school year, wipes away tears as she pleads for the school to remain open. She spoke during a school board meeting at Kiski Area Administration Building in Allegheny Township on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Cheyenne Cramer, a fifth-grader at Kiski Area Upper Elementary School but was enrolled at Laurel Point Elementary School last school year, wipes away tears as she pleads for the school to remain open. She spoke during a school board meeting at Kiski Area Administration Building in Allegheny Township on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.

About 65 emotional Parks Township residents attended the Kiski Area School District's public hearing Thursday night to protest the proposed closing of Laurel Point Elementary School.

While district officials say no decision will be made until April, when the state requires the board to vote, Laurel Point is expected to close at the end of the school year as part of a districtwide reorganization.

District officials say the reconfiguration will greatly reduce energy, operating and personnel costs.

It has so far eliminated 12 positions, and a full-time teacher will likely be laid off next year because of falling enrollment and rising health care and retirement costs.

The reconfiguration should also improve the quality of educational programs the district offers its students, according to Superintendent John Meighan.

Closing would upset residents

But many are heated that Laurel Point will be a likely casualty just six months since being named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Common concerns expressed at Thursday's hearing were the impact the school's closing would have on property values, the township's identity and the students' quality of education.

Many Parks residents, like Karlan Miller, who submitted a 250-signature petition to the board Thursday, are frustrated that the board would propose closing an elementary school that was recognized this year as one of the country's best.

“In no world does it make sense to close Laurel Point,” he said. “Nobody (that the board) is representing is in favor of its closing, and no other school in the district was even in consideration as a blue ribbon school.

“This direction in which (the board) is heading: How do you really know it's effective?”

The school board put the school reconfiguration in motion in September 2010 under the advisement of a feasibility committee comprised of teachers, administrators, board members and citizens.

Based on the committee's findings, the board moved forward with a plan that converted the former North Washington Elementary School into the district's only upper elementary school, for fifth- and sixth-graders.

The Allegheny-Hyde Park, Mamont and North Washington elementary schools were converted into kindergarten through fourth-grade primary schools.

Those will ultimately absorb students and faculties from the district's other three elementary schools.

The Bell Avon Elementary School has already closed and the building sold at auction.

Washington Elementary, which is housing Kiski Area East Primary School's students during its renovation, is set to close at the end of the school year.Laurel Point targeted for closing

Meighan presented evidence Thursday that Laurel Point would probably be next.

The school is the district's least energy-efficient, he said, with an annual operating cost of $36,000.

Even after fifth- and sixth-grade students were moved to Kiski Area Upper Elementary School, Laurel Point still lacks “the facilities necessary to provide a truly effective learning environment.”

“The school has one room that serves as the cafeteria, auditorium and gym,” he said. “The computer lab is in the basement and could not be made handicap accessible. A lot of work would need to be done just to get the building up to snuff.”

Business Manager Peggy Gillespie said further renovation would cost about $1.1 million — on top of the $1.6 million the district spent in renovations on the building prior to 2010.

Carrie Slagle of Vandergrift, who has two kids who went to the elementary school, said she fears the district is placing a higher premium on balancing its budget than it is on the students' education.

“This is my children's education, and it's not something that I take lightly,” she said. “(The district) claims the reorganization is improving the students' experience.

“But I know that none of the other schools make as much of an individual investment in each of their students like Laurel Point does.”

Meighan said students at Kiski Area Upper Elementary are broken into smaller groups to ensure that no students “fall through the cracks in a bigger environment.”

The students also benefit, he said, from departmentalized instruction from subject specialists.

Cheyenne Cramer, 10, of Vandergrift, is four months into her first year at Upper Elementary after her sixth-grade class at Laurel Point was folded into the elementary school in Washington Township.

In her testimony before the board Thursday, Cheyenne shared between sobs her discontent with her new school and longing for Laurel Point.

“It's really scary changing classes every day, and it's really big,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “I really loved my teachers at Laurel Point and they really loved me. They made me the person that I am today.”

Students would go to Kiski Area East

Laurel Point's 106 students and five teachers would all transfer to Kiski Area East Primary School, formerly Vandergrift Elementary School, if the board votes in April to close the elementary school.

That decision, according to Miller, would lead to a steady drop in property values.

“If that school closes, there will be no reason for anyone to want to buy in Parks Township, Armstrong County, anymore,” he said. “It's one of the nation's best schools. What kind of a message are we sending if we shut this school down on our kids?”

Board President Keith Blayden said residents' testimony Thursday will weigh heavily on the board's decision — one that he says is still up in the air.

“We had less than a dozen people for the same type of hearings for Bell Avon and Washington Elementary and (Thursday), we had about 65,” he said. “It's something we're going to take to heart when we make the decision. It's not an easy one.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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