The Tunkhannock Area School Board held the last of a series of scheduled public forums at Mehoopany Elementary School on Monday, aimed at providing an opportunity for community input as well as obtain information on a possibility of consolidating the elementary schools within the district.
The board previously took public comments on three different occasions when it announced at its regular meeting in the high school auditorium in November that it is considering proposals made by KCBA Architects concerning the possibility that up to three elementary schools could be closed, and the students moved to different buildings.
Rising costs and a declining student population base are the reasons the board is considering closing the Mills City, Evans Falls, and Mehoopany elementary schools.
The board previously emphasized that no decision has been made at this time - that it wants to gather as much information as possible before going forward with the project.
Superintendent Heather McPherson emphasized at Monday’s hearing that the district wants to provide the best education to the students.
The way the system is running now in the district, she said, students at one elementary school have access to certain programs and technology that aren’t available at others. What they want to see is equality and equity throughout the district, in which all students have access to all the same programs and technology.
McPherson showed two of the six proposals from KCBA to which the board has been giving serious consideration. In Option 5, a primary center would be established for grades kindergarten to second. An intermediate center would be established for grades three to six. A junior/senior high school would be set up for grades seven to 12.
An addition would likely be built onto the high school to accommodate an increased number of students.
Option 6, which is new and under study, would not require additional construction to any of the buildings, according to McPherson.
Instead, a primary center would be set up for grades kindergarten to second; an intermediate center for grades three to six; an academy for seventh graders; and a junior/senior high school for grades eight to 12.
Seventh graders would be split between what is now the middle school and the central administration building, McPherson continued. Students would take some classes in one building, then switch in mid day to the administration building, where they would have access to STEM labs and other similar technology.
Following McPherson’s presentation, many people expressed their opinions and concerns about the proposals.
One of the biggest concerns continues to be the amount of time students will have to spend on buses as they’re transported back and forth from school.
Vicki Strouck explained that she lives in Lovelton, one of the furthest communities from the center of the school district.
“I see that as a real problem,” she said about the time her children would have to spend on the bus.
McPherson explained the bus routes are one of the biggest challenges facing the district.
She said the board is committed that no student have to spend more than an hour riding the bu. One of the problems is many of the bus routes loop around the schools, adding considerable time to the trip. The district is attempting to work out methods to allow the buses to take more direct routes to eliminate the problem.
Tina Henning asked if the consolidation would have an adverse affect on the Red Tile District - the vo-tech program offered at the high school. Henning said the Red Tile Program is of equal importance to programs geared to helping students attend college, because there will always be a need for people who work on cars, repair HAVC systems and build houses.
In response, McPherson explained all the discussions involving consolidation included the Red Tile District, with the idea of making it better.
“Not everybody is going to a four-year university,” McPherson explained. “My dream is that every graduate hold a diploma in one hand and an industry certification in another.”
Fred Harding said that he had been a teacher in the Tunkhannock Area School District for 30 years. He urged the board to ‘slow down’ in its decision-making process. He recommended the district apply to the state for the necessary financial support to make the necessary repairs to the elementary schools.
“Slow down just a little bit,” Harding said. “I don’t think we need to shut down three buildings and build a big castle.”
Lucas Nardini echoed Harding’s concerns, saying he also believes the board should slow down in its decision-making process. He asked how much the district anticipates saving if the three elementary schools are closed.
McPherson said that - according to figures previously provided by KCBA - the savings would be approximately $5.3 million over a five-year period. That’s assuming the buildings generate no revenue, and do not cost the district any money in that time frame.
Board member John Burke explained that the board has been consideration the possibility of consolidation since 2013.
“Just to put it in perspective,” Burke said. “It probably feels rushed to many people, must because it’s very new and it’s a lot of information. But the board has been working on this for four years. Just wanted folks to know we’re trying to take our time and make sure we’re not rushing into that.”
Another concern expressed by several people was what would happen if the student population would suddenly increase after the consolidation took place.
Burke explained that every year for the past 20 years the number of students has dropped.
“In 1975, we had over 5,000 students,” he said. “This year, it’s just about 2,400.”
Board member Holly Arnold agreed, saying that when she graduated in 2000, the student population was much higher than what it is now.
Sadly, Arnold continued, the district has also lost many programs over the years, because of lack of funds.
Arnold pointed out that it will be much more cost effective to offer great programs to the students in one school, compared to having to duplicate the programs four times at four elementary schools.
Burke said he has heard concerns from some parents that their children have great teachers and they will not receive the same quality of education if their particular school building is eliminated. This is incorrect, Burke said. The same teachers will still be available to instruct the students, they will simply be taught in a different building.
Jeff Fleming said he believes the consolidation will eliminate 45 teachers, 12 maintenance people, nine food service personnel, and three secretaries, just so a ‘taj mahal’ could be built in Tunkhannock.
Burke and McPherson challenged Fleming’s contentions, saying it has previously been explained that teachers and other staff members will still be required to see to the students’ needs, and any excess positions will be eliminated via attrition when someone retires or resigns.
Fleming also said that the board will have to make a decision on consolidation within 30 days.
Board member Randy Greenip contested this, explaining that - when the project was announced in November, the board has to wait a minimum of 90 days from the first public hearing before it can make a decision. But the board does not have to make a decision at that time, Greenip continued, it could wait 180 days or even longer before any action is taken.
McPherson said that a Faculty and Staff Forum, attended by four board members will be held after school at the middle school on Feb. 21 for anyone working in the district to discuss implications of what’s being considered.
The superintendent noted that meeting is not open to the public.
The school board’s next regularly scheduled meeting is at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 23