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Clairton officials dispel school-closing rumors

Clairton City School District officials said rumors about their high school closing are greatly exaggerated.

Resident Sean Thomas informed school board members at Wednesday night's meeting that there is talk throughout the city as well as online that the high school is shutting down.

"I keep hearing that all over the place," Thomas said. "It's abuzz somewhere. I'm hoping that it's not (true). I plan on buying property here, and that would be devastating to that property if there's not a school here."

"The answer is no," district superintendent Dr. Wayde Killmeyer said. "The last school district I worked in, I heard that rumor about that school from the day I started till the day I left. That rumor's always out there (about) any small school."

"I've been hearing the rumor myself," board vice president Paulette Bradford said. "The truth of the matter is that it is totally out of our hands. If the state decides to close us, there is absolutely nothing that we can do. Because if that was the case, trust me, people in Duquesne (City School District) would never let their school close."

Pa. Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said last year that Duquesne City School District is "unlikely ... to continue to function in its current form" beyond 2011-12.

Since 2007, former Duquesne High School students have been tuitioned out from Duquesne to West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny. Some say a plan for Duquesne's future could include tuitioning out the 400-plus K-8 students to other districts.

The General Assembly reduced Pennsylvania's school districts from more than 2,000 to about 500 in the 1960s. The only voluntary merger occurred in 2009, when two Beaver County districts formed Central Valley.

"We can jump through every hoop (the state) puts in front of us, but if they make the final decision, then it is what it is," Bradford said. "The state does not like to have 502 school districts. Their game plan is to condense 502 school districts down to 100 and something. So you do the math. That means a whole lot of schools are going to be closing in their plan. We're doing what we can do to keep this school district solvent and open."

There were multiple reports in April about Gov. Tom Corbett suggesting school districts look into consolidations or mergers.

Clairton officials looked into the possibility last year while dealing with a $1.3 million state subsidy cut.

Letters were sent to West Mifflin Area, West Jefferson Hills, South Allegheny and Elizabeth Forward school districts to "explore the possibility of a future consolidation merger of our districts."

All of the districts declined to open the exploratory talks. Clairton's solicitation for merger and shared-service discussions was authorized by former superintendent Dr. Lucille Abellonio.

Board president Rich Livingston said specific criteria and actions are necessary in order for a school district to be closed.

"One (way) is by act of state legislature," Livingston said. "Right now, that is not politically advantages for the representatives or the senators that presently represent this area, because they represent our neighboring school districts.

"The second way is if you're financially in trouble. You have to be in financial trouble four years in a row. The Clairton School District has shown a surplus the past two years.

"We've never had a negative spending balance in the last 10 years ... The other way of doing it (involves) test scores."

According to figures released by the state Department of Education, Clairton Elementary School went into "warning" status last year.

The district made AYP last year. The middle school and high school went from "warning" to AYP.

"When I came on the board 11 years ago, our high school scored in the eighth percentile," Livingston said. "Last year, our high school scored in the 30th percentile. That's a great gain. It doesn't mean our work's done, but that's a tremendous gain. The board recognizes that we have a long way to go. This board has been very, very dedicated to improving the academics of this school."

Thomas referenced the low test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

Reading and mathematics percentages are posted on the district's website, www.clairton.k12.pa.us.

Last year's reading target was 72 percent proficient and 67 percent proficient in math.

According to the website, reading scores in grades third through fifth went from 38.9 percent in 2010 to 29.6 percent in 2011.

Those scores in sixth through eighth grades increased from 50.3 percent in 2010 to 53.2 percent in 2011, while those scores in grades nine through 12 decreased from 37 percent in 2010 to 36.5 percent in 2011.

Math scores in grades third through fifth decreased from 58.4 percent in 2010 to 45.3 percent in 2011.

Those scores in grades six through eight increased from 49.7 percent in 2010 to 51.3 percent in 2011. Those scores in grades nine through 12 remained the same at 18.9 percent in both years.

Livingston noted the district was able to maintain all academic programs and full-time kindergarten with the budget cuts last year.

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