Gateway School District request hints it's preparing to close middle school
Monroeville resident Rob Elms has filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and is asking it to investigate the Gateway school board's recent steps to rezone a middle school property from residential to commercial.
“It's a commitment to close the school,” said Elms, a former school board member. “The board has carefully been avoiding the word ‘close' because the solicitor knows that's wrong.”
Elms said to follow education department rules, the board should have had a public hearing about its intent to sell Gateway Middle School before talking about rezoning the property. He sent his complaint to state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, to forward to the education department.
“At first glance, it doesn't appear to have been a violation,” Markosek said. “We'll have to wait and see how it all shakes out. I'll keep my eye on it, too.”
An education department official provided the state's requirements for selling a school but would not comment about complaints or investigations involving the Gateway district. The state requires a public hearing within three months before a vote to close a school, according to the official. Elms contends that a vote to rezone the property is effectively a vote to close the school.
“What's really happening is that pieces of whatever is going on is being executed without anything going out to the public,” Elms said. “The residents and the school district are the ones that are going to lose from this eventually.”
School board member Steve O'Donnell, who is on the building and grounds committee and has spearheaded the move to rezone the property, doesn't understand the concerns. While rezoning is a step toward selling the property, a public hearing isn't necessary until someone offers to buy it and a vote is made to close the school, he said.
“A zoning request is not a request to sell; it's just a zoning request,” O'Donnell said. “The next move would be to put it on the market, pending school board approval. And then we would wait to see if we get an offer. Once we get an acceptable offer, then we have to go through the state education department process.”
School board members have said that a trend of declining enrollment could lead to closing the school. According to district data, enrollment has dropped around 20 percent since the 2009-10 school year. This year's enrollment, 3,157, is down from 3,297 last year.
What to do with its students if the building is sold — whether to build a replacement middle school or move the middle school students to the high school — is a problem the board still has to work out. But board members were unanimous in September in support of having the property rezoned to get the process of selling it started.
The board's rezoning request was approved by the Monroeville planning commission in October. Councilman Ron Harvey, whose ward includes the middle school at 4450 Old William Penn Highway, said he would likely vote to approve the change when it comes before the council in November.
“At this point I would vote to approve, unless I'm given a reason not to,” Harvey said.