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Deer Lakes' merger talk fails to generate interest

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 2:11 a.m.

If the Deer Lakes School District goes looking for a merger dance partner, it might only find a hall full of wallflowers.

The idea of approaching neighboring districts about a merger didn't go over big when Deer Lakes board member William Lupone Jr. recently brought it up.

And it doesn't seem to be generating much enthusiasm among some of the districts Deer Lakes could court.

Hampton Superintendent John Hoover wouldn't take a call about the subject. District spokeswoman Shari Berg said he declined to comment.

The administration at Pine-Richland School District, which also borders Deer Lakes to the west, gave the same response, or lack thereof.

Fox Chapel School District officials did not respond to requests for comment made through the district's spokeswoman.

Hampton and Allegheny Valley were the two districts Lupone initially had specified as potential merger partners during the Deer Lakes School Board public meeting on Monday.

“At this time, our administration at Hampton has not received any phone calls or inquiries about a merger, nor has our board of school directors had any conversations about mergers,” Berg wrote in an email.

At Allegheny Valley, board President Larry Pollick said a merger is not something his board has discussed.

Despite past studies finding Allegheny Valley would benefit from a merger, such as with Riverview School District, Pollick said Allegheny Valley is doing well enough financially and educationally to not be interested.

“That day might come. That day is not here for our school district,” he said. “We'll make a decision based on what our needs are. It's as simple as that.”

With one member absent, the Deer Lakes School Board voted 5-3 against contacting neighboring districts about a potential merger. After some discussion, which ones would be contacted had been left “to be determined.”

Lupone could not be reached to comment at length about why he brought the subject up when he did. It had not been on the board's agenda for that evening.

“It's sort of been something we've been kicking around for a while,” Lupone said. “Being on a school board, the thing that's most important to us always is the kids. If we're not looking at all of our options, then we're not doing our job.”

In April, while reviewing the district's 2014-15 budget, Business Manager Dennis Thimons said Deer Lakes is on track to be broke in four years, exhausting reserves of about $4.7 million.

Deer Lakes is still in contract talks with the union representing its teachers, who worked the entire 2013-14 school year without a current labor agreement. The district also is embarking on a search for a new superintendent; Janet Ciramella is due to retire next year.

Kevin Cochran, president of the Deer Lakes Education Association, said the union's goal is to settle a new contract before the start of the new school year.

Cochran said he and other teachers aren't interested in a merger “unless absolutely necessary.”

“Right now, I still think we provide a good service,” he said.

Finding a dance partner for a merger could prove extremely difficult for Deer Lakes, said Frank Gamrat, a senior research associate with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, which has looked at the issue of merging school districts.

“People like their school district. There's community pride wrapped up in their high school. You get a lot of community push-back,” Gamrat said. “They don't want to see their teams or schools go away or change names.”

In Beaver County, Gamrat said, the former Center Area and Monaca school districts did a nice job of placating people when they merged in 2009 to form Central Valley School District.

It was the first and only voluntary school district merger in the state.

“There are benefits to merging as long as it's done correctly,” Gamrat said.

Knowing that there would be a tremendous backlash from their constituents explains why officials at districts would rather not talk about it “than answer unwanted questions from irate people,” Gamrat said.

“People can be fiercely loyal to their school district. Getting rid of it is beyond their comprehension,” he said. “We just don't like change.”

While there are no incentives or funding from the state for districts to study merging, state Rep. Frank Dermody said he could try to find money for a study. The Allegheny County Democrat said he has not been approached about it.

But funding for education is already proving difficult as state lawmakers are coming up to the state's budget deadline at the end of the month, he said.

“Deer Lakes would need a willing partner. I don't know if that partner is out there,” Dermody said. “It's not an easy thing to do. Everybody likes local control. Everybody likes their school district.”

But, he added: “It doesn't hurt to look at it.”

Debbie Beale, a member and former president of the Highlands School Board, said she has considered a merger because of her district's budget constraints and declining enrollment.

While not approached by Deer Lakes, she said a board member at another area district she would not identify has approached her personally about a merger.

Beale said she supports mergers, if done for the right reasons, and for more than just school districts.

“I think it's time, I really do. I know change is difficult, I get that,” she said. “I think 9/11 should have taught every one of us that we need to all work together; that's how I see it.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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