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Elderton High to close

Despite tearful pleas and irate accusations from Elderton area residents and students, the Armstrong School District Board of Directors voted during a special meeting Wednesday night to close Elderton Junior-Senior High School and Kittanning Township Elementary before the upcoming school year.

The decision to close Kittanning Township Elementary was unanimous among the nine directors, while director Royce Smeltzer was the lone opponent to the closure of Elderton, which will still serve as an elementary school.

According to Sheldon Berk, ASD’s interim director of finance, the district will save $1.7 million by closing Elderton and $1.1 million by closing Kittanning Township. Minus a $500,000 budgetary reserve, the move saves the district $2.3 million.

A large group of opponents to the district’s consolidation plan spoke out during the meeting, many of whom were vehemently against shutting down Elderton for the second time in four years.

“I think closing (these schools) is a mistake made under a false premise that you’re going to be saving money,” said Bill Glover of Plumcreek. “You are going through this process to put forward an agenda that this board majority has been pursuing for six years or so, and you’ve been quite accomplished at doing a psychological hatchet job on the Elderton attendance area.”

A prior board majority previously voted to close Elderton after the 2008-09 school year, moving students to West Shamokin High School in Cowanshannock. The next board majority then voted to re-open the school before the 2010-11 year. But the current majority has backed a plan to close older buildings in need of extensive repairs and will begin construction on a new high school in Manor Township for students who would have attended Ford City High School, Kittanning Junior High and Kittanning Senior High — all of which also are slated to close at a later date.

Although many of the speakers at Wednesday’s meeting were resigned to the fact that both Elderton and Kittanning Township would eventually be closed, several Elderton students struggled to keep from sobbing as they asked the board to delay shutting down the buildings until at least after the upcoming school year.

“I hate being pushed around between buildings,” said senior class president Taylor Eastlick of Plumcreek. “This year, I’ll be sent to West Shamokin, where I will know no other students and I’ll once again be split from my best friends.”

Eastlick, who represented Elderton at board meetings throughout the year, repeatedly broke down into tears.

“I only wish to finish my senior year with a good education and with the friends I’ve grown up with,” she said. “If you really want Elderton High School closed, why not close it after the big school is built and be fair with all the students?”

Royce Smeltzer, who represents Elderton, Plumcreek and South Bend, made a motion to amend the resolution to close Elderton immediately and asked for another year.

“The reason I’m doing this is for proper planning and consideration for families and most of all the students,” said Smeltzer. “Sixty days is just not enough for families in our areas to prepare for life-changing alterations of their lives.”

To be debated, however, the motion required a second from another director, and the silence among the board didn’t sit well with residents from the Kittanning Township area who openly pushed for Region III director Stan Berdell to speak up.

But neither Berdell nor any other director provided the second, and the motion was declared dead.

After the meeting, Berdell explained why he didn’t support Smeltzer’s proposed amendment.

“When you look at how much we’ll save from closing Elderton, a couple million dollars might not seem like much,” said Berdell. “But when you go down the road and see all the costs associated with keeping the school open, the money in our budget just isn’t there.”

Berdell said it was a difficult decision to make, but that it was purely economic.

“I understand the sentiments of the people who were here,” said Berdell. “It’s a biased crowd, and I understand that, too. But from the constituents who have called me and who I’ve talked to, they’ve said this decision is the right way to go. You can’t keep kicking the can down the road. At some point, you’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

According to the revised budget which also was approved last night, the closings mean ASD’s expenditures next year will drop from $88 million (which was proposed in the tentative budget released last month) to $86 million. That will leave the district with a $5.3 million fund balance at the end of the 2012-2013 year as opposed to $2.97 million.

In addition, solicitor Lee Price revealed that the district has received an offer from Adelphoi Village to buy the Kittanning Township Elementary building. Adelphoi, a nonprofit agency that provides community-based alternative and special education programs to youth, would only be interested in the footprint of the building and would ask that its students have access to adjacent sports fields and playground areas during the school year.

“They were aware from prior public proceedings that Kittanning Township might be available for acquisition,” said Price. “They approached the administration on June 25 and have made an offer to the school district to acquire that structure for $100,000.”

Price said Kittanning Township also has shown interest in purchasing the building, and although the directors approved a motion to allow the administration to further investigate the Adelphoi offer, the district will approach the township before any decisions are made.

After the meeting, board president Joe Close said accusations that the directors stand to somehow benefit from the district’s current direction are unfounded. Close said the current directors are paying for the mistakes of the previous board majority.

“All of this is entirely budgetary,” said Close. “In this climate, we were already working with numbers that are extremely tight. On top of that, we’ve now been forced to make payments back on an $80 million bond at a point further ahead than we should be. All of it just makes a tough situation that much tougher.”


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