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Lenape Tech's articles of agreement questioned

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, June 28, 2010

Two of the four school districts that send students to Lenape Tech are taking different approaches to sending their students to another vocational-technical school.

Freeport Area and Leechburg Area both sent students to the Northern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center for the first time in the 2009-10 school year.

Northern Westmoreland offers a half-day program, while Lenape offers full-day programs.

Freeport Area plans to send 17 students to Northern Westmoreland for the 2010-11 school year, including students who went there in the past school year, district spokesman Todd O'Shell said.

Leechburg Area does not intend to send new students to Northern Westmoreland but recently asked the Lenape joint operating committee for permission for one of its students who attended Northern Westmoreland last school year to continue next school year.

The committee said no on a vote of 5-4.

At issue is whether the articles of agreement that bind the districts — along with Apollo-Ridge and Armstrong — to Lenape allow sending students to a school other than Lenape.

Lenape had 450 students in 16 programs in 2009-10. Next year, it will pilot a half-day computer information technology program.

The articles of agreement doesn't allow for sending students — even one — to Northern Westmoreland, said James Solak, vice president of the Armstrong School Board and a member of the Lenape joint operating committee.

In a March 2009 letter to Leechburg Area Superintendent James Budzilek, state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak cited state school code in saying Lenape's member districts cannot send students to a school other than Lenape without the agreement of Lenape's joint operating committee.

The three Armstrong members and two Apollo-Ridge representatives on the Lenape committee voted against Leechburg Area's request last week. The Leechburg Area and Freeport Area members voted in favor.

"For every student that we let do that, that costs the Armstrong School District taxpayers an increase in the per-pupil costs," Solak said. "If those students are leaving the classroom, we're paying for it."

Leechburg Area sent five 10th-graders to Northern Westmoreland last school year. Four of them will return to Leechburg Area or go to Lenape next school year. One wanted to stay at Northern Westmoreland, board member Terry Knepshield said.

Budzilek said he did not believe Leechburg Area needed to ask for permission, but a majority of the board felt differently.

Last week, the Leechburg Area School Board delayed a decision on whether to allow current Northern Westmoreland students to continue attending that school, pending the decision of the Lenape committee.

"We were asking if the students who had already started there could continue in order to finish out their three years at Northern Westmoreland," Knepshield said. He wasn't surprised by the vote.

"I think it has been quite a divisive issue, and they have always taken the hard-line stance," Knepshield said. "This is just another decision in a very long line of similar decisions up there."

The Leechburg school board will have to discuss what it does next, Knepshield said.

Freeport Area's board members "believe they don't need Lenape's approval. I personally believe the same," said Knepshield, who said his position is that Leechburg Area's student should be allowed to continue at Northern Westmoreland.

Freeport Area sent about eight 11th-graders to Northern Westmoreland last year. Juniors and seniors will attend next year, O'Shell said. The majority of the 11th-graders who started there are continuing.

The district has 20 students planning to attend Lenape.

Freeport Area will not be asking for permission from the Lenape committee. Based on its research and legal advice, Freeport is "well within its legal bounds" to send students to Northern Westmoreland because Lenape does not offer a half-day program, O'Shell said.

"Our intent is to continue to give students the opportunity for a half-day program, which is not offered at Lenape," O'Shell said.

Solak said he wants the court to interpret the articles of agreement and settle the dispute.

"As a school board member in Armstrong, I want the articles of agreement ruled on so we know if the Pennsylvania Department of Education is saying it's not legal or proper and it requires a joint operating committee vote, and we voted against it, then how can Freeport and Leechburg do that?" he said. "Where's the enforcement?"

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