Alle-Kiski Valley declining school enrollment raises merger issue
Almost all of the Alle-Kiski Valley’s 15 school districts have seen a drop in enrollment during the past 30 years — and in the next 10 years, only handful of districts are expected to see an increase in the number of students.
Dwindling enrollments and a bleak economy mean some districts are talking about consolidating their schools or retooling how students are organized in those buildings.
Kiski Area School District will close three elementary schools. It will use three of the remaining schools to teach kindergarten through fourth grade, another school for all fifth- and sixth-graders and will retain its secondary school buildings.
Closures were driven by both enrollment and the condition of the school buildings.
“It was enrollment in the fact that when we look at the smaller buildings, it’s hard to make equal class sizes,” said board member Dave Anderson, who led the elementary feasibility study committee.
New Kensington-Arnold School District is considering a number of options for school consolidation. All three options on the table now would close at least one school.
Consolidation is being driven by a need to save money and flagging enrollment, Superintendent George Batterson said.
“The truth is, even if we didn’t have the economic issues, it would be wise of us to look at consolidation (because of enrollment),” Batterson said.
A feasibility study is under way at Highlands School District. While grades may be moved around, buildings likely wouldn’t close, spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski said.
Enrollment in the district hasn’t dropped significantly in the past decade, so any changes would be attributed to saving money and using resources better.
The big picture
Two years ago, then-Gov. Ed Rendell proposed consolidating Pennsylvania’s school districts from 500 to 100. Though newly elected Gov. Tom Corbett has made no official decisions about mergers, his campaign materials say he would oppose forced consolidation.
Campaign materials say Corbett will “encourage multi-district collaborations in purchasing, service delivery and instructional programming, but will oppose any efforts to mandate consolidation.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association will not take a position regarding consolidation until legislation has been introduced, according to union spokesman Wythe Keever.
“Our general view of the subject is that in considering whether to consolidate districts, that the General Assembly should first consider whether those changes make a positive difference for students,” Keever said. “… We’re willing to discuss any legislation, but so far it hasn’t been introduced.”
With low cost-of-living-based limits on how much school districts can readily increase property taxes for the upcoming school year, many districts are looking at the programs they provide, class sizes and enrollment projections, according to David Davare, director of research services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
That also means they’re deciding whether to repair or replace older buildings.
“We support local choice, so if two districts choose to go in voluntarily … we’ll support them with whatever assistance we can,” Davare said. “But we would oppose, and we did oppose, Gov. Rendell’s bill of mandated reduction.”
A Standard & Poor’s report, commissioned by the state Legislative Budget and Finance committee, found four years ago that 88 small districts could benefit from merging with neighboring districts.
The study tried to determine whether consolidation would help smaller and more rural school districts save money, Keever said. It pointed out that any forced consolidation would be controversial.
“Typically school districts become very much part of the community’s identity, and consolidations or mergers are often very difficult,” Keever said.
According to the S&P report, the ideal size for a district is between 2,500 and 3,000 students, Keever said. The premise was that per-pupil spending would decrease the closer consolidating districts come to that enrollment, he said.
There are a few exceptions to the A-K Valley’s trend of decreasing enrollments.
Four districts expect an increase — though slight — in students during the next 10 years.
“The potential is there for growth in the district,” Freeport Area School District spokesman Todd O’Shell said. “(The townships are) trying to manage their growth. … We obviously have a concern for exploding populations.”
Buffalo Township leaders are planning for commercial growth along the Route 356 corridor just off Route 28 near the high school.
The district’s middle school in Freeport, built in 1924, is only about 100 students away from reaching capacity.
Four options for district construction are on the table, all of which call for closing the junior high.
Even though Freeport is expected to experience slight increases each year, it won’t match class sizes of the 1980s, which were bolstered by more robust industry and larger families, O’Shell said.
Burrell School District Superintendent Shannon Wagner attributes a recent decrease in district enrollment to the natural ebb and flow of the community.
Right now, the area is home to many older families and few families with younger children.
“We’ve probably been losing 30 kids a year, easy,” Wagner said.
But state education officials project more children will attend the district within the next 10 years, bringing total enrollment to 2,090 — almost back up to what it was 10 years ago when Wagner began working in the district.
“If it goes back up to where it was, the 2,000s, that’s awesome,” she said.
Though Wagner said the current school buildings provide sufficient space, elementary grades will be retooled beginning next school year, creating one building for kindergarten through third grade and one building for fourth- and fifth-graders.
“Our realignment is really a K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) realignment,” Wagner said, “But it’s got to start at the bottom.”
Burrell has never discussed merging with another district, though Wagner said people do sometimes joke with her about a tri-city school district — merging New Kensington-Arnold with Burrell.
That idea might make sense economically, she said, but it would likely be difficult for the community.
Even retooling grades was a hot-button issue, she said.
At Leechburg Area School District, enrollment is expected to continue its decrease until 2013-14, when the state projects it will begin increasing by about 20 students each year.
“I don’t know what the Pennsylvania Department of Education is basing that on,” Leechburg Superintendent James Budzilek said. “We’re very hopeful that our enrollment goes up.”
As the Alle-Kiski Valley’s smallest school district, it’s often the target of those in favor of merging school districts.
“There’s been rumors of us merging for the past 30 years,” Budzilek joked.
Though there have been merger discussions, none has ever reached a serious level. The discussion was heightened when the Standard & Poor’s report came out and paired Leechburg Area and Freeport Area as a hypothetical example of a merger.
The report didn’t consider a number of factors, said Budzilek, who reviewed the study for his dissertation.
Namely, the study’s consolidation idea didn’t look at geography — it would have made the merged district cross over Kiski Area’s territory, or across a river.
Plus, enrollment has remained stable for the past couple of years and the state Education Department even predicts gains.
“Anybody can say merge just for the sake of merging,” Budzilek said. “But you’ve got to look at the facts.”
New Kensington-Arnold, too, is expected to see slight gains during the next decade. The district would be able to absorb the projected additional 100 students in 2020, Batterson said.
Enrollment is expected to stay stable in the Allegheny Valley, Deer Lakes and Riverview school districts.