CLEARFIELD – The Clearfield school board deliberated the future of the district’s grade configurations and facilities while also discussing their implications with the general public during a well-attended information session Monday night.
In January, J. Greer Hayden of HHSDR Architects/Engineers, the district’s architect, presented the district-wide feasibility study to the school board. The six proposals outlined grade configurations and building options, which originated from the district’s feasibility study advisory committee.
According to Hayden, the district initiated the feasibility study approximately one year ago and formed the committee last May. The committee met multiple times, touring the district’s facilities and hearing presentations about their conditions.
The committee members identified and discussed deficiencies and shortcomings at each of the district’s facilities. These were detailed in an approximate 160-page final report presented to the school board earlier this year, he said.
“There are two main reasons that led us to this study – the declining enrollment and conditions of the facilities,” Hayden said. “We took a look at the district as a whole . . . determining the issues and developing potential solutions.”
Hayden indicated that the committee leaned toward option six that, if implemented, would follow the grade configurations of kindergarten through fifth grades, sixth through eighth grades and ninth through twelfth grades. The option would close the Bradford Township, Centre and Girard-Goshen elementary schools.
“Miscellaneous repairs” would be completed at the Clearfield Elementary School, which would also have an addition built on. The district would have the option to either construct a new Clearfield Middle School or renovate the existing building, he said.
If the school board pursued this option, it’s been proposed that the new CMS building be constructed on the same campus as the CES. The building would be located in the rear area of the current CES, which is currently used for ball fields.
However, if it elected to renovate the current CMS building, the plan proposed an addition to the front for office space and security vestibules. The entire CMS would be renovated, and walls would be “knocked down” to accommodate for larger class sizes.
Hayden said that renovations would also be completed to the high school and its athletic facilities. The district’s administrative offices would be relocated to the lower level of the high school, and a new maintenance facility would be built for the district.
According to Hayden, the project would cost an estimated $56 million if the district decided to construct a new middle school. A new middle school would run the district $23.9 million; it would be $21.65 million to renovate the existing building.
Looking at the district’s immediate needs, he said it should embark upon its project with the administrative office and maintenance facility this April. He proposed the facility be located at the high school campus near the back parking lot.
Board member Tim Morgan said the district’s buildings were in poor condition and underutilized by the district. According to him, the district has a stagnant tax base at best and fewer dollars to work with from the state budget.
“I don’t believe this community can sustain a $55 million project. I can’t buy into any of these options,” he said, adding he would remain open-minded about the potential closure of the district’s elementary buildings.
“That part is a little more complicated. I don’t know how we’re going to keep all the schools open. We’re going to have to be creative.”
Like Morgan, board member Jennifer Wallace opposed all six options, stating she agreed with “bits and pieces,” but opposed the majority of the details of each.
According to her, the district cannot rely on the state for funding, and neither the state nor the district has money. She strongly opposed the financial burden falling on the local taxpayers and found a major tax increase “unacceptable.”
In addition, Wallace believed the small schools throughout the district were important. Students are able to receive one-on-one attention from their teachers due to small class sizes, and that relationship would become minimal if schools were to close, she said.
For example, she pointed out that the Centre Elementary School is located near two, low-income housing complexes. If the district consolidated to one elementary building, she said it would especially create travel and other issues for these students.
“These are big issues to keep in mind. It’s frustrating. I have to ask myself, ‘how did we get to this point?’” she said. “We’re sitting here looking at a $56 million project.
“We have to stay up-to-date and on top of it. We shouldn’t be doing this. To be honest, we don’t have the money. We need to ask ourselves what the taxpayers are willing to pay and what is best for our kids.”
While he found the proposed grade configurations agreeable, board member Phil Carr believed the district couldn’t afford more than $25 million. He suggested it proceed with renovations to the high and middle schools with half allocated to each.
Carr wanted the district to maintain Bradford, Centre and Girard-Goshen elementary schools. He didn’t believe the district would see any cost savings by closing these facilities.
Board member Mary Anne Jackson said the feasibility study was “beyond comprehending,” and the district has been a “delinquent caretaker” of its buildings.
She said the high school must undergo renovations and also noted the elementary schools weren’t in locations to best serve the district. “Closing, consolidating is probably the best thing to do . . . and the middle school is inadequate and not repairable.”
According to Jackson, the school board needs further input regarding the grading configurations. However, she felt the fifth grade should probably be included at the elementary level to which board member Dr. Michael Spencer agreed.
Spencer said he, “in good conscience,” couldn’t support the fifth grade being in the middle school configuration as a former administrator. He didn’t prefer any option more than the others but said whatever option was pursued must last 20 years.
Board President Dave Glass couldn’t support any project of this magnitude, especially in terms of the cost. For him, the board needs to cut the scale of the project in order to make it “more manageable for the taxpayer.”
“There is the declining enrollment. The state says it’s going to level off, but I don’t see it happening. I don’t see any growth (in future years). Sooner or later, consolidation is going to become inevitable,” he said.
Glass supported consolidating the elementary schools and closing the middle school. He also believed that a seventh through twelfth grade configuration at the high school may reduce costs.
Both board members Larry Putt and Susan Mikesell wanted to remain open-minded about the district’s approach to the feasibility options. Although he favored consolidating the elementary schools and closing the middle school, Putt wanted public input, so they’d make the best decision.
Mikesell said the board was in a “tough situation,” and she was undecided about any of the school closures. Growing up there were many small schools within a 10-mile radius.
“Kids on opposite ends of the street went to different schools. That’s how close the schools were back then,” she said. “I don’t want to close any schools, but we have to be fiscally responsible.”
Most parents didn’t believe that elementary school closures were an option, citing it would result in nearly 1,000 students at the CES, which would lead to larger class sizes and become detrimental to one-on-one learning experiences.
In addition, parents didn’t want young children spending extended periods on buses traveling to and from school. According to parent Brenda Stiner, some children who are from the Keewaydin area, live 25 miles from the CES and are on the bus for about an hour and 10 minutes, just one-way.
“That equals two hours and 20 minutes daily on the bus and 11 hours and 40 minutes over five days. That’s a lot of time for little kids to be on a bus,” she said. “If these same children went to Girard-Goshen, that time would be cut down to 20 minutes daily (one-way).”
Parent Elizabeth Billotte expressed concern about the possibility of a new middle school being located near the CES. For her, it would only create problems, such as increased traffic and the spread of germs among the students.
When it came his turn to address the board, resident Tim Winters couldn’t believe no one had discussed the recent legislation endorsed by State Sen. John N. Wozniak, D-35 of Johnstown. Wozniak announced last month that he’d be introducing legislation stimulating the discussion of school district consolidation among neighboring, low-enrollment schools.
“I would suggest minimal repairs and the formation of a long-term plan. Pennsylvania can’t support 500 school districts. Consolidation is coming and may even become mandated,” Winters said.
Glass announced he has plans to meet with Wozniak and wants to discuss the school district consolidation bill among other things. However, he’s met with officials from the Curwensville Area School District who he said turned down any open discussion of the two consolidating.
Winters said the two districts may not have any say if Wozniak’s bill is enforced by the state. Under the bill, school districts with an annual daily membership of less than 2,500 students would be required to combine with nearby school districts if the consolidation is proven to be economically prudent and educationally beneficial.
Richard Hughes, of Hughes Engineering, presented his option, “6A,” which he believed “would keep 85 percent of the people happy” in the district. He suggested a re-districting plan, which would “cut off” Covington Township, giving it to the West Branch Area School District.
According to him, it would be four miles closer to bus these students there than into the CES. These students are enrolled in Clearfield schools only because a river runs between them and the nearby West Branch Area Schools, he said.
His plan would close the district’s Bradford, Centre and Girard-Goshen elementary schools. He suggested that the district’s students who currently reside in Knox Township but attend Centre be placed into the Curwensville Area School District.
The middle school building could be fixed, Hughes said. Following the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Thomas B. Otto indicated that district officials haven’t investigated the process of re-districting and for that reason couldn’t say if it was an option at this time.
Resident Glen Wise told the board there wasn’t any option that would suit everyone. “No one wants their school closed. She doesn’t want to go to West Branch, and she over there doesn’t want to go to Curwensville. You should be pleased with the turn out, but I don’t envy your position.”
“No one likes any of the options. No one wants to spend more than $25 – $30 million. Are you going to come up with another option?” resident Annette Mikesell asked the board.
Glass said that the feasibility committee derived the options, which were reported back to the school board. He said, at that time, the budget for the project wasn’t “talked about as much.”
He said the six options have fallen in the price range of $50 – $55 million, which isn’t affordable for the district. He added that the board will develop “a hybrid” option but will make it available for public scrutiny.
“This isn’t going to be solved this month, next month or even the month after that,” Glass said. “We’re so glad that so many came out. It’s a critical time for the Clearfield Area School District. We have a lot of big decisions to make.”