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Northgate teacher layoffs defended as way to preserve district

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 12:37 a.m.

Necessary but unpopular staff cuts could help tiny Northgate School District survive, its superintendent said on Tuesday.

The school board voted to eliminate 23 teaching positions and 10 teachers aides because enrollment dropped from 1,644 students, taught by 110 teachers during the 1995-96 school year, to 1,211 students with 115 teachers this year.

“I find it difficult that the school board is just going to let this happen,” said Lisa Dietrich, a parent who questioned how the cuts made on Monday would affect special-needs students and school security.

The district serves Avalon and Bellevue. Avalon's population was 4,705 in the 2010 census, a decline of 11.13 percent from 2000. Bellevue's population of 8,370 in 2010 was down 4.6 percent from a decade earlier.

“If you have 1,200 students, you can't have a staff with five more people than you had when there were more than 1,600 students,” Superintendent Joseph Pasquerilla said.

He does not advocate merging with another district.

“This is a district with neighborhood schools, and any attempt to merge with another district would not have my support,” Pasquerilla said.

Education officials predict mounting pressure for all school districts, especially small ones such as Northgate, to cut costs, share services and consider mergers.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials estimates nearly 20,000 teachers have been laid off in Pennsylvania during the past two years, in decisions “driven by dollars,” said Jay Himes, the group's executive director.

Under a 2006 state law, districts cannot increase property taxes higher than 1.7 percent without voter approval. Every referendum in the state that sought to raise taxes has failed, Himes said.

In the next two years, the cost for districts to fund pensions will increase 40 percent each year, Himes said.

“You almost have to shed payroll to make up for this,” he said.

The 2007 merger of Center Area and Monaca school districts in Beaver County was the first voluntary merger in Pennsylvania since the 1960s.

Some experts question whether consolidation saves money.

Mergers can lead to furloughing staff, adapting curriculum and working out complex tax differences between districts, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

“It is a lot of work and costs money to merge,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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