CLEARFIELD – C. Alan Walker, secretary of the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development, testified during the Clearfield Area School District’s 780 public hearing and opposed the proposed permanent closure of the Clearfield Area Middle School and the Bradford Township and Centre Elementary Schools.
By law, the district is required to conduct a 780 public hearing during which it hears public input on the proposed school closings. One hearing was held for all three school buildings Monday night in the middle school auditorium. The district did not take any official action afterward and cannot until the conclusion of a three-month “cooling off” period in January of 2013.
Fifty years ago, Walker graduated from the Clearfield Area High School in the class of 1962, an accomplishment he’s “always been proud of.” He noted his graduation ceremony was held in the same auditorium that he was speaking to the board in. In addition, he believed that he received a “wonderful academic base” that helped him earn two more college degrees.
However, he said that Clearfield was much different in 1962. First and foremost, he said the district’s enrollment was more than double its current enrollment with senior classes graduating between 300 and 400 students. Secondly, he said the Clearfield community was very different with a thriving downtown and a robust manufacturing base, which in turn fueled a much stronger tax base.
Since then Walker said one-by-one manufacturers have either slipped away or closed their doors. He compared the Clearfield area’s economic struggle and gasp for breath to that of watching a life-long friend battle with a threatening illness.
“Now, I’m very concerned the economy of the Clearfield area is facing the perfect storm,” he said.
He reminded the board that the Shawville Power Plant will close in 2015. In addition to the direct jobs, he said it will shut down roughly one-half of the remaining coal industry in Clearfield County.
“We’re also likely to lose several other employers in the next few years without any job replacements in sight,” said Walker. Further, he said the newly-expanded sewage treatment plant will in all likelihood require substantial rate increases to handle debt service.
Walker said the state’s Public Employee Retirement System, known as PSERS, has an unfunded liability of $25.5 billion, which is projected to grow to $65 billion by 2021. He said teachers, administrators and support staff are currently a part of this system, and the district pays 12.36 percent of each individual’s pay or roughly $470,000 annually to PSERS, which he expects to substantially increase.
Walker said the district has embarked upon $36 million in new debt to expand and renovate the current high school and convert it into a junior-senior high school campus for grades seven through twelve. He said the proposed Clearfield Elementary School expansion will require an additional $10 million debt in the form of long-term bonds.
“What will you do when your cupboards are bare?” asked Walker. He said when the crisis strikes the district will only have two options. He said it will either have to raise property taxes or cut costs by reducing the number of employees and programs, such as sports or music.
He said his solution was “simple.” He sought for the board to not only move grades four through six back to the Bradford Township and Centre Elementary Schools, but also to re-open the Girard-Goshen Elementary School. He said this will eliminate the need for new classroom space and construction.
Walker said they currently aren’t sure where enrollment will stabilize. But with the pending loss of jobs in the local economy, he said people will be relocating to find work. Should this trend reverse, he said that would be the appropriate time to consider an expansion at the CES.
“Unfortunately, administrators come and go. School directors come and go. But the taxpayers remain,” said Walker. “From my years in a three-room country school in Bigler, which had seven grades, I know it’s the teachers who make the difference in education, not the classrooms. If we should be fortunate enough to operate with a surplus over the next few years, let’s invest it in our teachers and teacher training, so that they can motivate our students to excel.”
Resident Thomas Daub told the board that an expanded CES will not bring more jobs to Clearfield. He said Clearfield needed new businesses and jobs before the elementary building project can occur; otherwise, he said residents will just end up overtaxed.
“You’re just going to drive people out,” he said.
Resident Penny Daub said she understands that the board is in a “bind” and wants to consolidate into two school buildings. However, she fears bullying will “jack sky high” with all the district’s elementary students at the CES.
She currently has two sons at Centre and one went to school with a walker on Monday. If the consolidation goes through, she worries her son, a kindergartner, will get ran over since he’ll be intermixed with older students at the CES.
Resident Jessica Wallace said her son currently attends Bradford Township. She said Principal Mary Mike Sayers knows her as well as her son by name. She said if they consolidate the elementary students into the CES, it’ll become a much larger school, and the district will lose the personal aspect of an education.
“I’m going to walk in that school. They’re not going to know me. They’re not going to know our kids. These personal aspects help our children build confidence and grow. This is a big mistake,” she said.
Only four audience members signed in to address the board prior to the 780 hearing. Afterward the district asked if any others wanted to offer input. No other public audience members wanted to speak.
When asked by the press before the closure of the hearing, Superintendent Dr. Thomas B. Otto said the district knows approximately how many staff members will lose their jobs if the district moves forward with the elementary consolidation. However, that figure wasn’t provided by Otto.
Otto said the district will try to avoid layoffs and handle it through attrition. He noted there weren’t any guarantees though, and the district will have to review its staff further at that time.