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Duquesne BOC looks to tuition more students

| Friday, April 20, 2012

More Duquesne public school students will transfer outside the city this fall.

Duquesne City School District's state-appointed Board of Control on Thursday directed its officials "to explore any and all possibilities of tuitioning its secondary students in grades 7-8."

That could add about 80 students to the more than 200 now transferred to West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny.

For the current school year, 165 ninth-through-12th-graders go to West Mifflin Area and about 70 more attend East Allegheny.

The resolution doesn't say West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny will be designated to receive those additional students.

"The secretary (of education Ron Tomalis) has to make the recommendation," deputy secretary Carolyn Dumaresq said.

However, board chairman Francis Barnes said his district doesn't intend to separate family members among different schools.

"There will be a transitional team," Barnes told the Rev. Timothy Caldwell, who asked if youngsters could follow their older siblings to East Allegheny.

Under Act 45 of 2007 and Act 123 of 2010, the secretary of education can "designate two or more school districts, which shall accept on a tuition basis the high school students" from a distressed third-class school district.

Duquesne was the only district under Act 45. It was "placed on the education empowerment list" as designated by the secretary. After the state Supreme Court found Act 45 unconstitutional, that phrase was removed in Act 123.

Pennsylvania Department of Education officials are interpreting Act 123 to include junior high schoolers.

"We didn't reinterpret the law," Dumaresq insisted. "It is our interpretation that high school is junior and senior high school, seventh through 12th grades."

Dumaresq said Duquesne's budget faces a $2.3 million shortfall for 2012-13 without the change, but still would have a $2 million shortfall for the coming year with the change.

"The law does not permit tuitioning (elementary school youngsters)," Dumaresq said.

The plan wasn't welcomed by residents or school staff.

Duquesne Education Association president Stanley Whiteman asked if there would be layoffs, and if it would end an athletic program he has run at Duquesne since 2008.

"The short answer to your question is yes," Barnes said.

"It is not fair to students," Caldwell said. "It is not fair to parents. No one ever asks our opinion."

Nor was the proposal welcomed by East Allegheny superintendent Roger A. D'Emidio, who feels his district has not been consulted.

"I want to know what the hell is going on," D'Emidio said.

D'Emidio said his district wants to hold the line on taxes and not lay off any personnel. He also said the majority of youngsters from Duquesne "are doing well. They're happy."

Tiffany Holman, who was one of the early transfers from Duquesne to West Mifflin, said she wasn't happy and that she fears what may happen to seventh- and eighth-graders.

"Why put them through the emotional and psychological stress?" said Holman, who survived high school and recently graduated from DeVry University.

A member of Duquesne's elected board suggested that the city district did not need to transfer students.

"We can educate these kids here," Calvina Harris said. "I'm paying enough taxes. This is heartbreaking."

In West Mifflin Area, any plan for additional transfers "hasn't really been portrayed to any of us yet," superintendent Daniel Castagna said. "(The West Mifflin Area board is) frustrated with the situation."

West Mifflin board members said last week they would pursue legal action if additional Duquesne students were forced on them.

On Thursday, while meeting at the same time as the Duquesne board, WMA directors replaced solicitor Gary Matta with the law firm of Maiello, Brungo and Maiello, and told the firm to be prepared to file an injunction.

One argument in West Mifflin is that the tuition that is paid for Duquesne students still leaves the district needing to tap its annual tax revenues for an additional $500,000.

Dumaresq said her department would see if the state's 2012-13 budget will allow an increase in what now is a $9,800-per-student tuition.

Also Thursday, custodians union president Kevin Price, said Matta, who once was Duquesne City School District's business manager, "created this fiasco" that led to the city school district's financial distress in recent years.

Barnes cautioned Price about making "accusations that are hurtful."

"We know him real good," Price retorted.

West Mifflin Mayor Christopher Kelly also was at Duquesne's meeting.

"I'm just here to learn what I can about how this affects my borough," Kelly said, "how it affects the tax base."

Kelly said he also was there as a grandfather of four youngsters, and said all youngsters "deserve a fair chance at education."

Staff writer Eric Slagle contributed to this story.

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