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Possible Connellsville school closures concern many

| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

The Connellsville Area School District held its first Section 780 hearing on Tuesday to outline possible effects on students, staff, operations and taxpayers if both Junior High West, Zachariah Connell Elementary, either or neither, were closed. Approximately 50 district teachers and residents attended.

Two parents objected to closing Zach Connell and two others urged caution in any decisions. No one else from the public spoke, but administrators addressed their areas of expertise and provided both pros and cons for the options.

Interim superintendent Tammy Stern said the district has not closed a school since the 1981-82 school year, when South Connellsville and Dawson-Vanderbilt Elementary schools were shuttered. Since then, enrollment has declined by 29.54 percent, from 7,187 to 5,064.

District architect Michael Straub, with Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates, Mechanicsburg, said Zachariah Connell's mechanical and electrical systems have not been renovated for more than 40 years and a renovation of the school would cost between $9 million and $10 million. He said reconfiguring Junior High West into an elementary school would cost from $700,000 to $2 million, with a $1 million to $1.2 million price likely.

Michael Omatick, director of buildings and grounds, said Junior High West could not be renovated with students in the building and work could not begin this summer. Design would take up to four months -- two for bidding and six to nine months for construction. If the board wants to close Junior High West, it would have to have ninth grade at the high school and all seventh- and eighth-graders at Junior High East ahead of time.

The financial situation

Business manager Eugene Cunningham addressed the district's financial situation and the likelihood its $11.03 million fund balance, which has been used to balance the budget, will be exhausted by June 2013.

The district has not raised taxes since 2004, and directors voted in December not to exceed the state index, of an increase of 0.315 of a mill, which would lead to a tax rate of 12.915 mills and yield $250,000 for the district. Directors have not voted to increase taxes and will not vote on the budget until June.

Cunningham said pension expenses will increase by $1.26 million, almost 43 percent, next year.

The state has reduced its funding to the district by $9.542 million in the last two years.

Cunningham said closing both Zachariah Connell and Junior High West would save $414,150, and reduce the number of teachers by 5.5. Retirements could cover this, said Karen Marko, director of personnel.

Marko said closing Zachariah Connell would save $309,676 in utilities, labor, supplies and repairs. Closing Junior High West would save $1.366 million.

Marko said a combined junior high school would be considered a new building for staffing, which would be based on certifications, seniority, voluntary transfer and current assignments.

James Lembo, director of transportation and athletics, said closing Zachariah Connell and Junior High West or just Junior High West would save $100,000 in transportation costs. Closing Junior High West and consolidating all seventh and eighth grade athletics at Junior High East would save $40,000 in salaries, plus savings in transportation and equipment.

The schools

Junior High West principal Geoffrey Snyder said consolidating the seventh and eighth grades would offer students more flexible scheduling, consistency, new classes instead of study halls, a more diverse student body, tutoring by staff at no additional cost, all student resources in one building, an auditorium and an easier transition to ninth grade because all eighth grades would move together.

Snyder said students may miss the traditional rivalry and the loss of their West/East identity.

Junior High East principal Richard Evans said the facility can hold 1,200 students and a consolidation will result in 800 students. "The core curriculum and electives are the same, but we will have more flexibility." He said several extracurricular clubs offered at Junior High East will benefit students who do not have them at Junior High West.

Zachariah Connell principal Traci Kuhns said closing Zachariah Connell would benefit students through consolidation of services, but because Zachariah Connell is centrally located, students will be split among several district schools and attendance boundaries will be in flux every year. Class sizes at schools that take students from Zachariah Connell may increase.

If Zachariah Connell closes and the students move to Junior High West, Kuhns said it will offer stability to students because they will move as a group, they will have a gym and class sizes will not change. She said the 40 to 50 students who walk rather than ride the bus may experience angst.

Should Zachariah Connell close and Junior High West remain a junior high, South Side, Dunbar Township, Bullskin and Connellsville Township elementary schools have limited or very limited capacity to absorb the 395 Zachariah Connell students, who would experience longer bus rides, it was noted.

Ronald Keefer, principal of C.N. Pritts and Springfield Township, said his schools moved two learning support classes from Pritts to Springfield the beginning of this school year smoothly by keeping everyone informed and letting any siblings of learning support students make the move, too. During the transition, students toured Springfield, the staff was prepared and he said the majority of students and parents have been satisfied.

"There has been a definite, clear academic improvement. These are things we do and are not, in themselves, good or bad. It's how we do them," he said.

Lisa Hampe, director of special education, said the district would have to meet state requirements under any option, but having all seventh- and eighth-graders in one building would provide better services and co-teaching; moving Zachariah Connell to Junior High West would provide continuity as well as expanded opportunities with a gym.

If neither building closed, only two learning support teachers would be at Junior High West for 42 students, Hampe said.

Michael Parlak, director of security, said closing Zachariah Connell would have no effect; closing Zachariah Connell and Junior High West or just Junior High West would result in one officer moving from Junior High West to Junior High East and the other to the high school.

Parlak said only middle school would create half the need of after-hours security for activities at that building.

Gloria Clawson, director of food services, said closing Zachariah Connell could save $60,000, as would closing Zachariah Connell and moving to Junior High West. Closing Zachariah Connell would also save on equipment maintenance. Closing Junior High West would save $65,000. She said Junior High West would be more efficient for staff and students because it has two serving counters. Food quality would not be affected by any option, she said.

Parents comment

Two parents with children at Zachariah Connell objected to the possibility of closing the elementary school.

Toni Sanner is the president of the Zachariah Connell PTO. "It's gone 45 years with no major renovations. That means it is either structurally sound or ready to fall down, and I don't think that's so. It's centrally located in one of the most populous areas of the district and has 6.39 acres. It will be $10 million to renovate, but it can currently hold 505 students at full capacity."

Sanner said moving Zachariah Connell students to Junior High West would leave the school less than half full. "We would fill 45 percent of Junior High West. It doesn't make sense. I can't see putting money into Junior High West and busing them from Connellsville to West for a gym. Afternoon traffic is astounding. I don't feel our kids should spend that much time on the bus."

Stacie Metzger has one child at Zachariah Connell and one at Junior High East. She questioned class size at a combined junior high.

Solicitor Christopher Stern said both Pennsylvania Department of Education regulations and contractual obligations keep class sizes down. Core courses will still average 25 students, while speciality and elective courses will remain at about 20.

Metzger asked about seventh and eighth grade sports. Lembo said combining both junior highs would allow seventh and eighth grade teams to get more attention. He said coaches typically concentrate on eighth-graders but can focus on both with all teams at one school.

She asked a final question about East End Football, which practices at Zachariah Connell. Solicitor Stern said no one could answer that question, since the board has not voted to close the building, let alone sell the property.

Kelly Sarnelli, who has two children at C.N. Pritts, cautioned the board not to rush to move the ninth grade to the high school until it can accommodate them.

Jennifer Shawley, with a child at C.N. Pritts and one at Junior High East, also questioned moving ninth grade to the high school in the fall. "Is it going to be ready for them• Maybe you need some more time."

About the hearings

Hearings are required by the state before a district can close one or more schools. For those unable to attend last night, a second hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at Zachariah Connell Elementary School.

Thursday's hearing will consist of summaries of administrative findings and continued public participation. A comment box will be available for anyone who wants to write comments rather than speaking publically.

Written testimony will be accepted for 30 days following that hearing. Send testimony by email to or mail to Vicki McWilliams, board secretary, P.O. Box 861, Connellsville, Pa. 15425. All testimony must contain the writer's name and address or it will not be included in the hearing documents.

The board must wait 90 days after the hearings to take any action, but directors may consider any testimony received at the hearings or during the 30-day public comment period.

All feasibility studies used to back testimony are on the district's website at and the PowerPoint presentation offered at the hearing will be available on the site today.

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