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Armstrong School District board rejects charter school plan

| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 3:33 p.m.

The dream of Everlasting Elderton could be short-lived.

Armstrong school directors voted 8-1 not to approve Everlasting Elderton's charter school application.

D. Royce Smeltzer, who represents the Elderton area, cast the lone opposing vote.

The idea surfaced last spring as ASD planned to close Elderton Junior-Senior High School.

After a public hearing with the EECS (Everlasting Elderton Charter School) founding board in December, the ASD directors compiled an extensive list of more than 20 reasons why the charter should be denied. Ranging from a perceived lack of public support to a potential need to increase real estate taxes, the board was skeptical the school would benefit anyone at all.

Vice president Chris Choncek noted the unorthodox MicroSociety curriculum EECS planned to implement for K-12 students is not geared toward secondary students.

“Overall, I'm just not confident that students would get added benefits or increased opportunities,” he said. “Ultimately, I don't feel they would get a better education through this charter school.”

Director Linda Walker, a retired ASD teacher, said she was skeptical the EECS board fully grasped all of the complexities that go into building a curriculum and catering to a wide range of students with special needs or gifted abilities.

“Speaking from the classroom viewpoint, I don't think the needs of these students would be met as they would be met in the current schools.”

Although the board did not read any of its official reasons for denying the application during the meeting, a written version will be mailed to EECS as soon as Tuesday.

But in a copy of the document obtained by the Leader Times, the board claims Everlasting Elderton was founded on false pretenses.

It reads: “The EECS was designed not to provide a new learning model, but solely to find a way to reinstitute the closed junior-senior high school building which had average graduating classes in the area of 30-50 students and could no longer be sustained.” It goes on to say, “It is apparent that adding elementary students to the enrollment was done merely to provide financial support for the meager number of secondary students in the area.”

The document also cites problems with the apparent lack of alignment between the MicroSociety concept and Common Core Standards; a vague plan for implementing MicroSociety on the secondary level; a lack of course offerings that could be provided by the proposed initial staff of six high school teachers; a universal start time that could have elementary students waking up as early as 5:30 a.m.; no librarian or Advanced Placement teachers; no textbooks; no opportunities for students to attend vo-tech schools; no possibility for dual enrollment at local colleges; a non-comprehensive professional development plan; and many more concerns.

The ASD board also felt that there was not enough public support to justify the charter.

“Despite the large geographic size and number of available students and parents from which to gain support for a local charter school, a dismal number of individuals came out to a well-publicized public hearing to support or advocate the start-up of the Everlasting Elderton Charter School. It is obvious from the attendance the evening of the hearing that the community support is undemonstrated and unsustainable.”

The board also said mandatory letters of support provided by EECS were “minimal in number, pre-made with several noted to be exactly the same, with the majority lacking addresses to verify whether the individuals are even residents of the school district.”

The board also felt the show of support from Elderton area business owners was not done to help students, but rather, in their own interests.

“The few letters provided by business owners did not focus on partnerships with EECS and making a contribution to the learning of the students,” said the report. “Instead, these letters from businesses extolled the need for a school as business and income had allegedly fallen precipitously since the Elderton Junior-Senior High School had closed.”

And although the Everlasting Elderton board continues to push for the ability to lease the former Elderton Junior-Senior High School, ASD has offered no indication that will ever happen. The ASD board said Everlasting Elderton's second-choice building, Towne Hall along Route 422, will require significant changes to convert into a public school and that cost “has not been properly taken into consideration.”

All of this, however, is before mentioning the potential financial impact ASD foresees the charter could have on the local economy. A budget provided to ASD showed that EECS expected local revenues through 2017-18 to total more than $16 million, and ASD — the host district responsible for the bulk of the revenue — would be required to allocate funding to a level of approximately 8.5 additional mills of taxes to account for it. The report said, “Local real estate taxes will need to be raised to offset the costs of the EECS and additional services and/or programs will need to be curtailed at the local level.”

In essence, the creation of Everlasting Elderton would nullify all of ASD's recent plans, which also included the closing of Kittanning Township Elementary and the future closings of Kittanning Senior High, Kittanning Junior High and Ford City High.

“It is apparent that the savings realized from a sustained program to contain costs and reduce building inventory will be negated through the costs associated through this one charter,” said the report.

Still, the founding board of EECS remains undeterred. Secretary Amanda Bartosiewicz of Plumcreek said she fully expected ASD to shoot down the application and anticipates the decision to eventually be overturned with an appeal to the Charter School Appeal Board (CAB).

“The EECS founding board has already voted to pursue every avenue available to us to get our charter approved,” said Bartosiewicz. “You give us no choice. When we appeal to CAB, our application would most likely be approved and could cost the district $100,000 or more in legal fees.”

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