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Proposed school closing angers parents

| Saturday, May 26, 2007

Southmoreland officials have proposed closing Ruffsdale Elementary School, a move that has angered parents who value the small class size at the community school.

Residents attended a public meeting at the high school auditorium Friday to have questions answered about the proposed closing.

Superintendent John Halfhill said the idea was considered when the district came up with plans to construct a new middle school and renovate Scottdale Elementary School.

"Ultimately, when we decided to go forward with the new projects, the goal was to have all kindergarten and first grades at Alverton Elementary School, second through fifth grades at SES and sixth through eighth grades at the new middle school," he said. "The assumption was that this would all take place at the completion of the middle school project in December 2008, but because of the number of moves that would have to be made before everything was finalized, a number of teachers thought the kindergarten and first grade students should move permanently right now to cause as little disruption as possible."

Part of the reason for the idea is because of a significant drop in enrollment, he added.

"At the beginning of the school year, we started with 2,210 students and now we're down to 2,193," Halfhill said. "Also, we have 143 enrolled in kindergarten and 129 in first grade, but the high school has two classes over 200, so we're consistently seeing a decline in enrollment."

Susan Wachter said her two daughters will be going to kindergarten and first grade next year, and she's concerned about the transition.

"Change is not easy and it was nice that Ruffsdale only has one kindergarten and one first-grade class," she said. "We will miss that."

Scott Accipiter, of Tarrs, asked why the district decided to close Ruffsdale instead of Alverton.

"Alverton is a bigger school and it's centrally located within the district," Halfhill answered.

Accipiter's wife asked administrators about how they will help the students ease into the big school environments of SES and Alverton, where administrators predict to have close to 150 students per grade.

"It might be a challenge for those kids that are making the transition this year to adjust to their new setting, but once we have all the grades in the same school, they just assimilate to that (because that's all they will know)," he said.

Resident Joe Polakovsky is not happy about the proposed closing.

"I can remember when I picked up my son from kindergarten (at Ruffsdale Elementary) and some boy said good-bye to him," he said. "When I asked him who that was he told me it was his buddy in the fourth grade. I guess we'll never have that again."

Polakovsky was also concerned about transportation and whether his children would ride the same bus, even if one is in Alverton and the other is at SES.

"We always try very hard to keep siblings together on the same bus," Business Manager Bill Porter said.

Resident Jolene Cummings said she hopes the children will have at least some type of orientation at the schools so they become familiar with the new setting.

Administrator John Molnar said the schools will have orientation in small groups rather than all the students at once so questions could be answered.

Resident Pat Rodriguez questioned administrators about what will become of the Ruffsdale school.

Halfhill said the district wants to maintain the building as a school setting and is looking into the possibility of leasing it out to such entities as the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit or Head Start.

Porter said he hopes the district is able to work something out with the intermediate unit, because the district's 20 students with special needs are being bussed to a school on Donohue Road across from Westmoreland Mall.

"If we could get the IU into Ruffsdale it would be a windfall for the district and it would be a better situation for the children who are spending sometimes an hour on the bus each way every day," he said.

Resident Robert Greenawalt is concerned about how much savings the district will see if the school is closed down.

Halfhill said the district will be able to reduce the number of custodial and food service workers and eliminate some busing, but the hope is to break even on utility payments and upkeep of the building by leasing the space.

Resident Bev Tissue said while she's not excited about the closing, she's resigned herself to the fact that it's probably a done deal.

Halfhill said board members will ultimately make the decision, but it cannot be made until 90 days after a public meeting Aug. 21.

Board members will likely have a special meeting that day to make the decision official.

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