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New Kensington-Arnold consolidates, closes 2 elementary schools

Thursday, July 17, 2014, 1:56 a.m.
 

The majority of New Kensington-Arnold students will attend a different school next month than they did in June under a consolidation plan approved Wednesday by the school board.

The board on Wednesday night agreed to close Fort Crawford and Greenwald elementary schools.

All students will be condensed into the remaining four schools.

School officials cited declining population, decreasing tax base, increasing costs, half-empty schools, and educational benefits of having grade levels in the same building.

Superintendent John Pallone likened it to a couple of empty-nesters moving from the four-bedroom homestead to a two-bedroom retirement condo.

“We clearly have too many buildings,” Pallone said. “We can't continue to pay for and support all of these buildings.”

The district plans to implement this configuration in time for the start of classes Aug. 27:

• Grades 7 through 12 will attend Valley High School in New Kensington, which will be renamed Valley Junior-Senior High.

• Grades 3 through 6 will attend the Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, which had been Valley Middle School.

• First and second grades will attend H.D. Berkey Elementary School in Arnold, which previously was an intermediate elementary school.

• Martin Elementary School will house preschool and kindergarten, and possibly administration.

The board agreed to resume full-day kindergarten, rather than the half-day program offered during the 2013-14 school year.

Administrators no longer intend to have the alternative-education program share Martin School with the district's youngest students, as had been proposed in the spring.

Alt-ed students will attend the junior-senior high school.

Pallone estimated the consolidation will save about $1.5 million annually starting with the 2015-16 school year. He said the savings will be substantially less this year due to the costs of moving and remodeling, plus limited staff changes.

Board member Regina Namey, a retired teacher who spoke against consolidation several years ago, said she felt the students' education would be well-served by the plan.

Some advantages Namey noted were:

• Returning to full-day kindergarten;

• Adding math specialists to the roster of academic specialists and coaches;

• Having team-teaching now that all elementary classrooms in each grade will be together;

• Maintaining extracurricular activities at current levels.

“I think you're getting (your) money's worth for your children,” she said. “I feel very confident the children will be OK.”

Board President Bob Pallone said the district will maintain student-teacher ratios: a maximum of 20 students in elementary classes and 25 in secondary classes.

“It's a difficult thing to do, what we're doing. We've lost sleep over this,” he said. “We have exhausted what we can do. This is our alternative right now. This is the best plan we could come up with.”

The board approved the consolidation in a 6-2 vote with Pallone, Namey, Eric Doutt, Jason Fularz, Pat Petit and George Zavadak in favor.

Board members Marilyn Claassen and Laura Varner-Norman were opposed; Liney Glenn was absent.

Varner-Norman tried to make a pitch for an alternate plan that would close only one school but did not gain any traction from other board members.

Community reacts

A standing-room-only crowd of about 120 parents, students, teachers and staff packed the board room, many with questions about how the configuration was chosen and how students would be accommodated.

Diane Hughley of New Kensington advocated for keeping Fort Crawford open, noting it was the only one of the district's buildings to be designated a national Blue Ribbon school.

“There is something happening at that school that is dynamic,” said Hughley, who was concerned about what the vacant building would mean for her Parnassus neighborhood.

“It's not the building that won the award. It's the teachers and students who won the award,” John Pallone said. “Maybe (the dynamic element) will spread like a virus to the rest of our staff, and all schools will become Blue Ribbon schools.”

Officials said Fort Crawford, though the newest school, was too small and too costly to maintain.

Hollie Dzanaj of New Kensington said she selected her home because it is in Greenwald's attendance area.

She worried whether Greenwald students would receive the same quality of education once they're blended with the entire district.

Pallone objected, saying mixing students in the elementary grades wouldn't harm any of them, especially since they would have all come together in fourth grade under the old configuration.

Dawn Dilliott of Arnold, a Valley High School senior, questioned how seventh- and eighth-graders would be kept separate from high-schoolers while parent Jessica Revilla of Arnold asked how third-graders would be separated from sixth-graders at the Hunt building.

Pallone said the two younger grades would occupy the second floor of the high school building.

He said there would be minimal mingling as students walked to special classes such as science, home economics and art.

He said the seventh- and eighth-graders would use a different bell schedule than the high-schoolers, starting and ending their day a period later.

The younger grades would not share buses or have lunch with the older grades.

At the Hunt building, Principal Pat Nee said the school's three floors would enable the third-graders to have the first floor to themselves.

Fourth grade would have the second floor, sixth grade the top floor and fifth grade would be split between the top two floors.

Parent Conrad Hoover said he was concerned about his daughter being a seventh-grader in the same building as nearly adult boys, especially in light of the behavioral problems he's heard about at the high school.

“That sounds very unsafe to me,” he said.

Bob Pallone, who has been critical of discipline and dress-code violations at the high school, said he would hold the administration accountable for maintaining order at the school, which he believes will be improved with the additional principals, teaching staff and security personnel there.

“This is a brand-new slate,” he said. “This is an opportunity to set a new tone.”

Valley Middle School teacher Bob Streitman questioned the board about staff furloughs and the possibility of delaying consolidation a year to avoid the chaos of trying to implement changes in the next month.

“Do it next year and do it right. With planning,” he said.

John Pallone said they don't intend to furlough any teachers this school year, which officials believe will help with the transition.

Pallone said they are working through whether there will be any cuts to custodians or administrators; the board is expected to approve a staffing realignment on July 24.

An initial proposal presented in April suggested eliminating about 40 positions, slightly more than half of which were teachers.

“We have gone to great lengths to make this as unobtrusive as possible,” Bob Pallone said. “We're bending over backwards to keep everybody.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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