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Moon parents upset by board vote to close elementary school

| Thursday, June 26, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

Some parents of children in the Moon Area School District say they feel blindsided by a surprise school board vote to close Hyde Elementary School.

In a second surprise at the meeting that stretched into early Thursday, the board authorized Superintendent Curt Baker to talk with the neighboring Cornell School District about a possible merger. Hyde's closure would be canceled if the districts combine.

“I was absolutely blown away. I was not expecting that this would be the decision that was made,” said Hyde Parent Teacher Organization's incoming president, Kelly Burgan, 39. Her son, 7, was to enter second grade at Hyde this fall.

Cornell Superintendent Aaron Thomas said he, too, was surprised by the Moon Area board's approval of merger talks — something that has been discussed, albeit years ago.

“I'm aware there is a heated issue with a possible school closure in Moon, but I was not anticipating our name being brought up,” Thomas said. “We'll see if anything transpires from it.”

The Moon Area board was expected to decide on a controversial plan to close Brooks Elementary School and spend $25 million to renovate Allard Elementary School and expand Hyde, based on an administrators' recommendation in March.

The board also was to vote on assigning kindergarten through second grades to Bon Meade and Hyde schools, and third- and fourth-graders to Allard and McCormick.

Instead, the board voted 6-2 to close Hyde and renovate the Allard and Brooks schools for the 2015-16 year. Reconfiguration of grades was tabled.

The decisions were made during a contentious, 6½-hour meeting attended by about 200 parents, many there to campaign against closing Brooks.

“I'm just dismayed that they would not engage in more public discussion about the impact that their action would have on the Hyde community,” said board member Michael Hauser, who voted with member Jerry Testa against the plan to close Hyde.

Samuel Tranter was absent for the vote.

The board had stressed for months that all 13 options for closing and renovating schools would remain on the table until a vote, said member Scott LaRue, who made the motion for the plan that included closing Hyde.

The cost to renovate Allard and Brooks has been estimated at $26.2 million, but LaRue said it could be done for $20 million, making that plan the most cost effective.

Moon Area has five elementary schools. The transfer of fifth-graders to the middle school in 2012 left nearly two dozen empty elementary classrooms, the district has said. Parents opposed to a school closure say it would result in longer bus rides for children, reduced property values and other problems.

Baker met in the afternoon at the district offices with Hyde's PTO officers, who invited other parents. About 30 parents at the session said they would have fought the closure of Hyde if they had thought it was an option.

“The board chose the path of least resistance,” said Laura Lesher, 39, who has four children, two of whom attended Hyde.

Cornell school district comprises a total of about 640 students from Coraopolis and Neville who attend classes in K-12 at one divided building. Board President Jeffrey McBain, 52, of Coraopolis said officials there have considered the small district's future.

“But over the last several years we have been able to right ourselves financially and academically, and we have a pretty good thing going now,” said McBain, who has two grandchildren in Cornell's elementary classes.

“I actually think (exploring the possibility of a merger) would be a wonderful idea,” said Jen Sedlock, 39, of Neville, who will have two children in Cornell schools this fall. “Our school is small, and if we were to merge with a bigger school, our kids might have more opportunities.”

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, recalls being a staffer in the state Department of Education when Cornell and Moon explored a possible merger about 15 years ago.

Buckheit said upfront costs of merging staff, curriculum and training, reluctance to merge sports programs and dealing with existing debt and tax structures are among the issues that set up roadblocks to mergers.

“In the long run they may save money,” he said. “But in the short term it will cost money, maybe a great deal of it.”

Tory N. Parrish and Debra Erdley are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Parrish can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com. Erdley can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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