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Hearing held on Elderton renovation project

| Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010

ELDERTON — Those who fought the closure and supported the reopening of the Armstrong School District's Elderton High School came out again Wednesday in strong support of the current plan to renovate the school and the adjacent elementary school.

During a required public hearing on the proposed $23.3 million renovation project, which also foresees the closure of Kittanning Township Elementary, most of those who addressed the board praised the school board for its actions over the past year. The district also is considering renovations and additions at Ford City and Kittanning high schools at a total cost, including the Elderton project, of roughly $78 million.

In all, 23 speakers, many dressed in the school's colors of green and white, addressed the audience who gathered in the Elderton High School gymnasium for the hearing. Seventeen people spoke in favor of the planned renovation projects, four spoke against it and two others asked questions about the project.

HERO (Help Elderton Remain Open) secretary Paula Byers called the renovations "what the people want who have sat by for decades and let the district ruin the area."

"Elderton supports its community school and we have the petitions to show that the majority of the people here want this to happen," she said. "Our kids deserve a quality education with up-to-date facilities."

John Yankasky of Manor Township, who was recently unsuccessful in an attempt to be appointed to the school board, called the renovation of schools "backward thinking that focuses on luxuries and conveniences."

"We need to stop following this antiquated doctrine of community schools and not perpetuate it for the next 40 years, like we have for the past 40 years," he said.

North Buffalo resident Cheryl Zboran said she felt the number of students per class in Elderton is "unfair."

"There are 21 classes with five or less students and the kids across the rest of the district have to pay for that," she said. We can't focus on one school, we need to offer the same opportunities to all students."

Ronald Stitt of Kittanning Township called the renovation plan "a deal with the devil," saying the original goal of the HERO group was to reopen the school, not spend $80 million to renovate three district schools.

"I'm all for the educational aspects of the spending for the school, but not the cosmetics," he said. "Why do we need two full-size basketball courts and a new auditorium when the ones we have had for the past 50 years have worked pretty well."

"I'm not in favor of a big new (consolidated) school, but we need to fix up what we have, just not make it into a Taj Mahal," Stitt said.

Bill Sherman of North Buffalo Township said the state Department of Education should deny reimbursement for all three school projects, contending that the district "created this plan to be done in such a way to avoid having to go to referendum."

"I would like to see the state at least delay this project for 13 months until the elections are held and the board majority and priorities could change," he said. "By delaying the project, we can let the elections be the referendum."

HERO chairman Dave Brown called Elderton a "growing area," and said the plan to renovate is in "full forward."

"We are proud of what the school district is doing, because it is long overdue," he said. "We applaud the district on the money savings they have created through these renovation projects. We want the very best education for Elderton, Kittanning and Ford City."

Director Jim Solak said keeping and renovating the school was important to retaining South Bend Township students in the district and not joining ther Apollo-Ridge School District.

"The township supervisors are on record saying they want us to keep the Elderton schools open or they would be forced to leave the district," he said. "If those 166 students were to leave, we would face a $1.7 million annual loss in revenue."

Project specifics

The purpose of the hearing was for the administration, architects and financial consultants to explain the details of the project and to hear public comments about the new construction.

Superintendent Stan Chapp, architect Brian Hayes, district business manager Eric Brandenburg and financial adviser Randy Frederick provided the overview. The information presented was made available in a project description booklet, created for the hearing by architects L.R. Kimball and Associates.

According to the presenters, the buildings are in need of renovations "by virtue of their age, ADA (Americans with Disabililties Act) deficiencies, and changes in programs and education philosophy since they were last renovated nearly 30 years ago in 1980."

In July, Kimball presented the board, which had voted in December 2009 to reopen the high school, with two options for the Elderton project, including renovating both schools and keeping Kittanning Township Elementary open and the chosen plan, which includes the closure of Kittanning Township.

The audience was told the option was taken because of the need to consolidate buildings as a cost-saving measure and for a separate gymnasium and cafeteria in the elementary building; a separate gymnasium and auditorium in the high school; classroom renovations; a new nurse's suite; new administrative offices, and handicapped accessibility.

The school board authorized a project cost of $23.3 million, which includes maximum construction costs of $8.8 million for the new portions of the buildings.

The district is expected to realize a total annual savings of $754,800 by closing Kittanning Township Elementary and renovating the Elderton complex, according to the booklet. The savings would include reducing the staff by 3.2 teachers and one school nurse, a reduction in phone and Internet services, decreased maintenance and repair costs and utility and sewage treatment savings.

Kittanning Township Elementary, under the board's plan, is slated to close at the completion of the renovation project at Elderton.

Those wishing to make comments can do so until 4 p.m. Nov. 19 by submitting written comments to the superintendent's office.

Director comments

Several times during the hearing, district solicitor John Rushford reminded the audience the purpose of the hearing to was hear comments specifically about the construction project for the Elderton schools, and he interrupted several speakers, asking them to focus their comments on the project.

Director Chris Choncek, who was one of seven directors at the hearing, left as vice president Solak was finishing his comments. After the hearing, Choncek said:

"I left the meeting early because I was disgusted. The latitude that was given to some of the citizens to speak about matters unrelated to the construction project was a violation of the agreed upon Act 34 guidelines. Others, however, who were opposed to the construction project were not given the same latitude. They were repeatedly reminded that their topic had to pertain specifically to the construction project."

"The final straw for me was during Dr. Solak's speech. Not only was he allowed to go over the five-minute time limit, but he also spoke about issues unrelated to the construction project. Again, he was shown great latitude by permitting him to do both. This blatant disregard for the rules and policies of this Act 34 hearing was the reason I left."

Previous speaker John Yankasky was given a warning by security guards when he called for the solicitor to direct Solak to speak only about the project.

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