New Kensington-Arnold lays groundwork for school consolidation
New Kensington-Arnold School District officials don't have all the details finalized for a proposed school consolidation, but they believe they have a solid foundation for making it a reality.
The school board and administration made the case for closing Fort Crawford and Greenwald Memorial elementary schools and reconfiguring the remaining four buildings during a public hearing Wednesday at Valley High School.
Faced with increasing costs, a stagnant tax base, half-empty schools and a $2.6 million deficit next school year, officials indicated they must make changes now or face the possibility of bankruptcy and state control.
“This enables us to start digging out of the hole sooner rather than later,” said Superintendent John Pallone.
Pallone estimated the district would save $1.6 million per year by reducing staff and not maintaining two buildings.
Pallone's presentation suggested eliminating 23 teachers, two administrators and 14 employees from the custodial, maintenance, food service and clerical staff.
The consolidation proposal includes:
• Turning Valley High School into a junior-senior high school by adding seventh and eighth grades.
• Using the Valley Middle School building for grades 3 through 6.
• Using H.D. Berkey School for first and second grades.
• Using Martin Elementary School for kindergarten, preschool, administration and alternative education.
Board Vice President Pat Petit, who has spearheaded the drive to consolidate, said that arrangement was recommended because those are the biggest buildings that will accommodate changes with minimal work. Additionally, he suspects Fort Crawford and Greenwald may be the most desirable properties for potential buyers.
Pallone said many of the logistics, involving scheduling, busing, staffing and classroom configurations, still must be worked out.
The board needed to present its tentative plans while many details still are in flux in order to meet state timelines for closing schools.
After Wednesday's hearing, the board must wait 90 days before it can vote on closures — meaning it will be mid-July before it can formally proceed with the plan.
In time for 2014-15
Contrary to a prior suggestion to make the changes to the middle and high schools in the next school year, Petit said he now is recommending the district implement all school changes in time for the 2014-15 year. He said the secondary schools likely will require the most involved changes and he'd like to avoid stretching the turmoil over two school years.
Petit said the plans would continue to be discussed and fine-tuned at school board meetings over the next several months.
‘We've looked at several options,” he said. “This isn't written in stone.”
About 20 parents, students and teachers questioned the plans or voiced concerns following the presentation, which drew an audience of at least 50 people.
Tara Taliani of New Kensington, an alternative education teacher in the Kiski Area School District, said she was worried about the idea of high school-age alt ed students being in the same building as preschoolers and kindergartners at Martin Elementary.
Pallone and Petit said if that ends up being the final plan, there would be clear separation between the two groups: they would be in separate wings, have separate schedules and would not share any common areas like restrooms or the cafeteria.
Melissa Alcorn-Ferry of New Kensington and Connie Vita, the president of the teachers union, questioned how seventh- and eighth-graders would be separated from high-schoolers.
Pallone said there is room for the two younger grades to share what is now called the ninth grade, or south wing, at the high school — the wing currently closed for roof repairs.
Other potential plans include installing dividers to close off the wing, operating on a staggered schedule and having different lunches.
High school students Kirsten Crawford and Madison Pastrick wondered how the consolidation would affect the classes offered, availability of accelerated and gifted programs, and scheduling.
Pallone said those specifics haven't been worked out, but that the gifted program would continue and advanced classes would be offered as long as there are enough students interested to justify offering them.
Mary Balich of New Kensington and Katherine Hoover of Arnold questioned the financial impact of the plan.
Hoover, a former board member, said she was skeptical the $1.6 million savings — which she called “pocket change” in comparison with the projected $35 million budget — would make a difference in the long run.
Pallone said the consolidation offers benefits other than just cost savings: the return of all-day kindergarten; equalization of class sizes within grade levels; and class sizes that should still meet the goal of 20 students per teacher in the elementary level and 25 students per class in the secondary; better ability for teacher collaboration; and less transitions for students.
“It's not easy for an elected official to lay off an employee or close a school,” Pallone said. “We're very limited in what our options are. If you've a magic wand or some magic beans, we'll be happy to take them.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.