Leechburg board upholds vocational decision

| Friday, March 28, 2014, 7:23 a.m.

The Leechburg Area School Board upheld its decision to limit vocational enrollment to half days beginning next school year.

The board voted 6-3 on Thursday against a proposal reinstating the option for full-time enrollment at Lenape Tech, its vocational school in Manor Township.

That option was stripped in 2012 to save money in tuition costs and ensure that Leechburg Area students were gaining a well-rounded academic experience, according to district officials.

Since students enrolled at Lenape were able to retain full-time status through the remainder of their careers, the decision's impact wouldn't be felt until the 2014-15 school year.

Board members were forced to move the meeting to the high school auditorium to accommodate the crowd of about 60 who showed up to voice their opinions on the proposal.

Those in favor of reinstating full-time Lenape enrollment argue that students are being stripped of their rights to specialized education. The vocational school's graduates, they say, are more likely to get a job in the area and begin contributing to the district's tax revenue directly out of high school.

Its detractors argue that the district can no longer afford to spend the $219,000 it saves in tuition costs by restricting enrollment to half days.

Even with “significant” spending cuts and the first major tax hike in four years, Leechburg Area finds itself $15,000 shy of balancing next year's budget, according to Business Manager Mark Lukacs. The deficit, he says, is the result of ballooning health care, retirement and transportation costs.

District officials arrived at the $219,000 figure with a cost analysis using this year's Lenape enrollment figures. With 38 full-time and 15 part-time students, the district paid about $524,000 this year in tuition. Were all those students enrolled part-time, they found, that figure would have been reduced to about $305,000.

Board member Anthony Shea says the district needs that money to maintain its programs.

“Even if we cut every sports program that we had,” he said, “we would still be in a $100,000 hole next year if we reinstated full-time tuition. That's money that must stay in Leechburg Area. That is the fabric of this community.”

Shea was joined in voting against the Lenape proposal by Jeremy Smail, Neill Brady, Megan Hamm, Brian Ravotti and Carlotta Del Vecchio. Board members Jean Stull, Kathy Vargo and Terri Smith voted in favor.

Smith said she voted for full-time enrollment primarily for the children's educations, citing several studies that find higher retention rates in subjects toward which students are drawn. She questioned the board's figures, which she said don't account for potential increases in half-day tuition at Lenape.

“Right now, Leechburg (Area) is paying half costs for half days,” she said. “Lenape's joint operating committee has mentioned raising half-day tuition from one-half the cost to two-thirds. It costs more to operate shop classes than it does traditional academics.”

Lenape is governed by a joint operating committee composed of board members from its four partner school districts — Apollo-Ridge, Armstrong, Freeport Area and Leechburg Area. Because Leechburg Area is represented by only two of the operating committee's nine members, Smith said the board would be helpless in overturning a motion to increase half-day costs, which she said would be in direct response to the district's withdrawal of full-time tuition payments.

“We're alienating our neighbors and our partner in Lenape, and we're doing a disservice to our students,” Smith said.

The majority of residents at Thursday's meeting, such as former board member Danielle Reinke, supported the board's decision.

“The district has already combined every position, cut every cost and passed every bare bones budget it possibly could,” she said. “With state funding being the way it is, there's no more room to budge.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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