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Elderton High School to reopen in 2010

| Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009

MANOR — The group fighting for more than a year to stop the closure of Elderton High School had its wishes come true Monday night as the Armstrong School District board of directors voted to reopen the school beginning next fall.

Despite comments from a handful of residents and directors to allow the school to remain closed, the board voted 6-3 to open the school, beginning in the 2010-11 school year. Directors Rose Stitt, Jim Solak, Royce Smeltzer, John Monroe, Mike Markilinski and Sara Yassem voted to reopen the school, while directors Jim Rearic, Chris Choncek and Joe Close voted against the measure.

Prior to the vote, four people spoke, asking that the board reconsider the move to reopen the school.

Ron Olsen of Ford City asked that the current system be left in place and given the chance to work and suggested the district closely work with the students to fully integrate those who are having adjustment issues.

District teacher Terri Delzer criticized the board for taking a "we showed you" approach to reopening the school, saying that prior to the closure vote, numerous meetings were held to discuss the matter, but only one meeting was held before the vote to reopen.

"The best interest of the students and the taxpayers was left in the dust," she said of the vote. "The money that it will cost just to staff Elderton could be used to upgrade the current buildings, increase the use of technology, and even buy more chairs for the cafeteria to help solve the alleged overcrowding."

Another speaker opposed to the reopening of the school was former Elderton teacher and teachers' union Vice President Tim Scaife.

Scaife suggested that the money needed to hire teachers for Elderton could be used more wisely by making investments in the other schools.

"By reopening this school, we are spending more to offer less," he said. "Smaller classes limit the students, more than it helps them."

John Swanson of Kittanning took the idea of keeping the school closed a step further and said that Kittanning and Ford City schools could be consolidated, all without creating a "superschool."

"I think that if the decision on Elderton was placed on a referendum, you would find that there is a silent majority who would choose to keep it closed," he said.

Speaking on behalf of the HERO (Help Elderton Remain Open) group, Paula Byers of Plumcreek, thanked the HERO members who spent time and effort to forward the group's secession efforts and to the residents who supported HERO.

"We were saddened that Apollo-Ridge decided not to accept our efforts, but thank them for their time in considering our proposal," she said. "HERO has been pleading that the board not close the school and we support those who are considering reopening our school."

Comments from school directors concerning the vote were centered mainly on bantering back and forth about past school board elections and candidates who were elected based on their stand on the community school issue.

Director Jim Rearic suggested again that the vote be held off until a referendum could be placed on the May primary ballot.

"It took us almost two years to make a decision to close the school and in one week you want to reverse that," he said. "Why can't we have administration begin the preparations to reopen it and when the vote comes in May, we can make a decision?"

After the meeting, the district issued a news release, saying that in January, the administration will announce its action plan to reopen the school, including sending letters to district parents concerning school assignments, attendance line changes, staffing projections, financial matters, sports schedules and other items.

In other news:

• The board voted 6-3 to hire the accounting firm of Case-Sabatini of Pittsburgh to complete a financial review and audit report to determine the cause of underestimating the 2008-09 ending fund balance. The cost is expected to be $4,000.

The vote came after lengthy discussions during yesterday's meeting and a meeting last week as to why the district's annual report showed a nearly $4 million windfall to the district over what had been originally projected when the budget was developed.

Jim Solak called the occurrence "very strange and unprecedented," and called the errors "unacceptable." He said the goal of hiring an accounting firm is to "find out what was done wrong and why."

Joe Close called the investigation a "witch hunt" and said the goal was to point the finger at administrators in an effort to have them removed from their positions.

Superintendent Bill Kerr said that administrators would be willing to work with the auditors to provide any information needed for the investigation and that the money in question was never missing from district accounts.

Timeline of developments in the Elderton High School closure issue:


• In January, Armstrong Superintendent William Kerr proposed closing Elderton High School, due to declining enrollment, low graduation numbers, increased building operating costs, high real estate taxes in the district, the inability to schedule any honors/Advanced Placement classes beyond single class offerings, and the number of classes that have 10 or fewer students, as well as redrawing the remaining attendance areas, splitting the Elderton students between Ford City and West Shamokin high schools.

The proposal caused an uproar in the community and the creation a month later of the HERO (Help Elderton Remain Open) group to stop the closure or to secede from the district and join another district.

• On April 28, a public hearing was held at the high school to hear comments about the proposed closure. The meeting lasted four hours.

• In June, ASD voted 5-4 to postpone a planned meeting that had been set for July to close the school at the end of that school year. The vote postponed the closing of the school and allowed the school to remain open for the 2008-09 school year.

• On Sept. 22, after nine months of debate and a public hearing on the matter, directors voted 5-4 to close Elderton High School at the end of the 2008-09 school year and redraw the district's attendance-area lines. The board also voted unanimously not to interfere with plans by the community group to begin efforts to secede from the district.


• In March, Apollo-Ridge directors voted unanimously to create a five-person committee to study the secession issue and asked that Armstrong do the same in order to begin gathering information and asking questions.

After months of talking and the postponement of one planned meeting, Armstrong directors put together a committee to meet in July with the Apollo-Ridge committee.

• In April, the ASD board voted 5-4 not to consider reopening Elderton High School.

• On June 17, members of HERO filed petitions in the Armstrong County Court of Common Pleas for the creation of an independent school district with the intention of joining Apollo-Ridge.

• On July 9, Armstrong and Apollo-Ridge committees met to talk about information concerning the possible secession of the Elderton area students. The meeting was not held as a public meeting.

• On July 21, the court approved HERO petitions and forwarded its findings to the state secretary of Education.

• On Aug. 24, Armstrong directors voted a second time, by a 5-4 vote, not to reopen Elderton High School. The vote came days before the start of the school year.

• On Aug. 28, both Apollo-Ridge and Armstrong districts received a questionnaire from the Education secretary, seeking educational and financial information for consideration of the secession request.

• On Oct. 29, Armstrong and Apollo-Ridge returned the questionnaires. Apollo-Ridge directors voted to oppose the merger and forwarded a list of detailed reasons for the opposition to the Education secretary.

• On Dec. 9, Armstrong directors swore in two new board members and proposed a resolution for the reopening of Elderton High School.

Previous school consolidation and reversal:

• During the 1990-91 school year, Ford City and Kittanning high schools were consolidated as Armstrong Central High School, while Dayton and Shannock Valley high schools were consolidated as Armstrong East High School. Elderton High School was left open as it was. East Brady High School and its attendance area joined the consolidated Armstrong Central High School for the 1991-92 school term.

After two years of school consolidation, community advocates were successful in the May 1991 primary and the November 1991 general elections, and a new school board took office in December 1991. The new school board voted to deconsolidate Armstrong Central and Armstrong East high schools in January 1992, and the schools were returned to their original makeup for the 1992-93 school year.

A year later, the East Brady High School attendance area seceded from the district and joined Karns City School District.

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