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Pleas to abandon Armstrong school projects fail

| Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010

MANOR — The Armstrong School District will continue with its plan to renovate and expand three of its four high schools despite pleas from a few speakers Monday night to act otherwise.

School directors took several votes to allow architects and financiers to move forward with plans for major renovation projects at Elderton High School, Elderton Elementary, Ford City High School and Kittanning High School, including the consolidation of Kittanning's junior high school and high school into one 7-12 complex.

Directors voted 6-3 across the board to approve spending $35,500 for asbestos abatement at Ford City High School; $11,500 for topographic surveys of Ford City High School; $56,980 for engineering, land permitting and geotechnical services at Ford City High School; and $100,725 for engineering, land permitting and geotechnical services at the Elderton complex.

Directors voted in the same number to submit the project justification and project site plans, floor plans, room schedules and educational specifications to the state Department of Education for the Ford City project. Directors Chris Choncek, Joe Close and Jim Rearic cast the no votes.

On the Kittanning project, directors voted 5-4 to have architects L.R. Kimball and Associates move ahead with plans for a combined Kittanning Junior and Senior High in which the high school would expand using the existing parking lot behind the school. Directors Choncek, Close, Rearic and Steve Kozuch voted against the plan, with Kozuch saying he would like to see a more detailed plan before agreeing.

Before the votes were cast, several audience members asked the board to reconsider spending $78 million to renovate the schools.

Tim Scaife, district teacher and vice president of the teachers union, asked the board to further investigate the cost of a consolidated high school to determine whether it would be "more taxpayer-friendly financially."

"If there is savings in closing one school, would there not be an even greater savings by operating one high school as opposed to three?" he asked. "The cost to build a new school may be more than the renovations, but will it save more in the long run?"

Dave Reefer of Kittanning Township called the renovations of schools "wasteful" and noted that once the loans are paid off, Ford City High School will be nearly 140 years old.

"Why are we adding capacity to buildings that are running at less than capacity now?" he asked. "You took kids out of Ford City and put them back at Elderton, yet you want to add more space to both. It doesn't make sense."

John Yankasky, who recently sought to be appointed to a board vacancy, said that repeated studies by the district have shown that "renovations are moving the district in the wrong direction."

"You need to stop spending money on ill-conceived plans, because if you asked the majority of the taxpayers in the school district, they would ask you to vote against renovating the schools," he said. "Expansion is the opposite of what needs to be done in this district."

According to board President Rose Stitt and Vice President Jim Solak, the proposed financing of the renovation projects would be funded on an annual basis through the combined savings of closing Kittanning Township Elementary School and Kittanning Junior High, along with other cost-saving measures taken by the board.

"This is the perfect financial storm for us," Solak said. "The interest rates are low, the construction costs are low and even with the reopening of Elderton, the ending fund balances continue to increase."

"We can meet the increased debt to pay for these projects and still have money in the budget for other things such as the future pension increases," he said. "We have money set aside now in the budget that will continue to be there so that we do not have to raise the millage rates."

Business manager Eric Brandenburg concurred, saying the district currently has $821,000 budgeted for architect fees, along with $400,000 budgeted for pension increases next year, and a $9.5 million projected ending fund balance in June 2011. The estimated fund balance at the end of the last fiscal year was estimated to be $1.3 million, an increase of more than $8 million.

Along with the discussion of the renovation projects, the board voted 7-2 to hold an Act 34 hearing on the Elderton renovation project on Oct. 20. Directors Choncek and Rearic voted against the hearing.

The meeting, required by the state, will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Elderton High School gymnasium and will outline the details of the renovation project. According to the district, the total project cost for Elderton is set at $23.3 million, including a maximum construction cost of $8.8 million.

West Shamokin Athletics

Directors voted unanimously to allow West Shamokin High School to join the Heritage Conference for football, cheerleading and academic competitions beginning next school year. Currently, the district participates in WPIAL's Class AA Allegheny Conference.

School officials and district administrators will work with the new conference and WPIAL officials to make the transfer to the new conference, which includes schools such as Blairsville, Marion Center, Purchase Line and Saltsburg.

The district will review other sports to determine whether they will be moved to the new conference as well.

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