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Districts may leave Pathfinder

Two school districts are mulling whether to stay in a consortium that operates the Pathfinder school in Bethel Park, a decision that could alter the state of special education in the South Hills.

Pathfinder is owned by the Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, Carlynton, Chartiers Valley, Keystone Oaks and South Fayette school districts. But Keystone Oaks plans to leave the consortium.

Bethel Park decided last night to remain in the consortium. Mt. Lebanon, Carlynton and Chartiers Valley and Bethel Park have pledged support for a new, six-district consortium. Upper St. Clair and South Fayette have discussed the possibility, but deferred decisions possibly until next month.

Bethel Park acting Superintendent Edgar Holtz said last night that during negotiations it appeared that only Keystone Oaks would leave the consortium.

The original agreement that formed Pathfinder 40 years ago expires in about a year. Keystone Oaks is leaving because district leaders have said they believe Pathfinder is no longer cost-effective.

“It’s a service that’s needed,” Upper St. Clair Superintendent Charles Lombardo told the district school board Monday night.

About 56 students attend the school, which now caters to students ages 11-21. That’s down dramatically from enrollment that once approached 400, said Cheryl Fogarty, associate director of educational services and support division for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which runs Pathfinder’s educational programs.

That drop is largely due to the school’s perceived lame-duck status. Pathfinder also once catered to younger students, but because of the school’s uncertain future that stopped, said Richard Rose, Pathfinder’s board president and a Bethel Park school board member.

“We’re open, but nobody wants to bring a young student into a building that will close next year,” Rose said.

The AIU has drafted an educational plan for a six-district consortium that aims to expand the program so more students are attracted to it, Fogarty said.

The major changes include expanding a life-skills support program and autistic support classes to students of kindergarten age through 21, up from just ages 11-21. It also includes creating vocational training and an alternative school program for middle school-aged students, Fogarty said.

Those changes are backed by school leaders across the region who’ve suggested they’d send more students to Pathfinder, she said.

Former Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Glenn Smartschan surveyed the 42 districts in Allegheny County and some in Washington County to gauge interest in Pathfinder. Of those, 13 responded and said as many as 87 new students would be interested in attending, Fogarty said.

Annual tuition now is about $41,000, but would drop as more students choose to attend, Fogarty said.

Now it’s up to the school districts to determine if there’s enough incentive to stay a part of Pathfinder. Only about 30 percent of the students attending Pathfinder are from the seven districts that own it.

There’s no minimum number of districts needed to run the program, Rose said. If another drops out, the remaining districts must decide if they want to buy out that school’s portion of the estimated $2.8 million value of the building. The new proposal allows for more districts to be added, but doesn’t specify how, he said.

“If there’s a $2.8 million price tag, it’s who can afford it and who wants to stay there,” he said. “I can’t even speculate. That would be up to the respective school boards.”

Staff writer Treshea Wade and freelance writer Kim Lawrence contributed to this report.


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