Meadville Tribune

February 5, 2012

‘Real’ changes needed to save our sinking school systems

Frank Schreck
Special to The Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Reading The Meadville Tribune recently and viewing Conneaut School District’s dilemma as to which direction they should take with their buildings and attendance area reminds me of my decision concerning our own projected closing of East End Elementary School.

Both districts had ambitious building and renovation projects that required substantial debt in the face of declining student enrollment. This left many taxpayers, as well as myself, wondering “what the hell is going on.” From my perspective, local school boards and Pennsylvania Department of Education are the primary culprits. First, the school boards over the past 30 years have never found a building project they didn’t like. In my four years on the Crawofrd Central School Board I have been reminded by experts and professionals (two words that make me grab my wallet and question the information) that new buildings, new doors and sidewalks make good schools.

Our test scores are in the toilet, discipline is a struggle, and our resources are depleted by debt, salaries and pensions we cannot afford. A former board member chastised the Crawford Central board for not taking the bull by the horns and raising taxes to satisfy unrealistic dreams, referring to that board’s failure to tax as they spent while putting Crawford Central’s elementary school project into place. A total of $37 million was borrowed in such a way, God only knows the true cost. But this district’s taxpayers are finding out it requires 2 1/2 mils per year to satisfy the additional debt.

The prospect of a school’s closing after two years of use, and $7 million spent for renovation, should really make no one happy. How about the Department of Education and its PlanCon? The PDE has approved each and every step in our great and glorious march to the future and I would assume every other district’s projects.

I asked myself how this can happen with all of the oversight of the Department of Education. I inquired, who is PlanCon and how can I get in touch with them? No one knew. I continued to ask. I finally got a vague answer, “They are in Harrisburg.” I said I will drive down tomorrow to ask my questions. Never got a name, never got an address.

So, I wrote to the state Auditor General and got the answer I didn’t want to hear. The AG has no jurisdiction! As long as the boards’ votes are legal and according to school code, a district does not have to show need, the ability to pay or the impact on education. Are these just rubber stamp departments for special interests? Perhaps we should reconsider the need for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Regardless of your position on East End School, there is one common thread: Until district Superintendent Charlie Heller, there was no planning for the future. He has been absolutely honest with the public about the need to close a school. And he is doing it with the least disruption to the students and with a thought to the future.

As a board member, my thoughts are with the whole district. With our declining population, closing East End would be step one. Step 2: Move the administration and some special needs programs to East End. Step 3: Move the middle school to the high school, move First District Elementary School to the middle school, thereby closing First District and eliminating our need to buy and develop additional properties for parking and playgrounds. Step 4: Move Cochranton Elementary School to Cochranton High School, as our student population permits.

Now let’s save some real money: salaries, pensions and benefits. We are coming upon a contract year after having approved one contract that was not accepted by our personnel. Why do we waste endless hours negotiating contracts taxpayers cannot afford? I propose that a check for the monthly budgeted monies for salaries, benefits and pensions be deposited to the Crawford Central Education Association monthly, and that they wisely administer their own business of providing us with quality teachers.

My last comment: The pubic desires and deserves to see our decision-making process. Let us combine our work session and monthly meeting into one televised session.

Cochranton-area resident Schreck is a Crawford Central School Board member.