Hearing on Dickey’s future brings questions, frustration

MILL HALL — Questions. Concerns. Frustration.

Those and further sentiments were expressed Monday night during a public hearing on the future of Dickey Elementary School in Lock Haven.

The Keystone Central School Board is considering closing Dickey as it grapples with a more than $7 million budget deficit for 2018-2010.

Following presentations by attorney Carl Beard, who was brought in to assist with the hearing, and substitute Keystone Superintendent Dr. Alan Lonoconus, the floor was opened up to speakers from the public.

Jim Foster, Brian Witner, and his son, Noah Witner, age 7, all spoke in favor of keeping Dickey open, while Dave Neville expressed support for closing the school.

Their testimonies were reported in an article in The Express on Tuesday.

Elisabeth McCoy, Mill Hall, was the next speaker at the hearing.

“The district is not facing fiscal challenges. It is in crisis. Crisis period may not end soon, or with just one school closure. It’s in crisis,” she began, citing last Thursday’s “very informative and alarming report by Dr. Lonoconus.”

McCoy also expressed her “anger and frustration” with the school boards of years past, and the previous superintendent, for “not presenting the simple line graph” and demanded, “why wasn’t this info presented three or even five years ago.”

“It’s our money, we should’ve been given this information,” she stated. “Hiding the information has not only forced our discussion tonight, but it has also forced fear on everyone inside and outside of the district.”

Bringing her speech around to Dickey, McCoy then said, “The children will adapt. The district must survive.”

On Dickey, she said, “I cannot rationally find one reason for why the district can feasibly, financially or logically maintain so many buildings. Closing the school will also cut down on duplication of services, maintenance costs, and especially safety and security issues… The district’s police can allocate resources and time more efficiently.”

“I fully support consolidation,” she added.

McCoy proceeded to spend some time talking about school choice, saying, “If you want your child to attend a better performing school, you can request a waiver.”

She also explained another option available to parents of Dickey students: “One of the best-rated schools in the area — the private Catholic school in Lock Haven.”

According to McCoy, “If your family makes $93,178 or less per year, there is grant money to pay the tuition. You don’t have to be Catholic to attend. Full tuition is only available to students at Dickey.”

This is because Dickey is one of 394 schools on the list of failing schools in the entire state of Pennsylvania, she noted.

“Parents have the power to send children where they wish. You have the power, you have the choice,” she finished.

Mary Lundt of Lock Haven was the next to speak, and she responded to McCoy as the first of several to say that the waiver needed to be “clarified.”

She mentioned the lack of a life skills program at Bucktail, and that she wanted to transfer her son out of Bucktail to a school with that program, but that she was told she could not.

She also echoed other speakers over space concerns: “I went to Mill Hall — grew up there. How are you going to shove 30 students when you can’t even fit 25 students in a room that small? Are you going to build or add on? That’s going to cost more.”

Samantha Berry of Beech Creek was up next.

“Something has to change with this board,” she began.

Berry said accusingly, “The answer to all money problems the last 25 years has been to close schools,” and that has “done nothing for our financial problems.”

She also expressed concern that “our district already ranked lower on the state testing — are these changes going to help?”

According to Berry, her son attends Liberty-Curtin Elementary near Blanchard and loves it.

“It reminds me of my elementary school — Sugar Valley,” Berry said. “Most of you should remember selling and closing Sugar Valley.”

“When selling the SV Elementary, the board chose to turn down an over $2 million offer, and accepted and sold it for $150,000, because you did not approve of the buyer,” Berry alleged. “But now you are supposedly worried about money. And now you’re smashing all of these children from all of these schools that you chose to close together,” she said.

Berry concluded by demanding, “Leave what schools are left alone. These are our children. They’re not cattle for you to push through the education system.”

Nicolina McMann of Lock Haven was the next to approach the microphone.

“I’m worried about class sizes,” she said.

“Dickey school worked with me to give my son a male teacher because he doesn’t have a father figure in his life,” she said with emotion. “They have pulled together to help my children do the best that they can.”

She expressed that her main fear currently would be a classroom with 30 to 40 kids in it.

“My son has ADHD … he would be lost in that sea of children,” McMann said.

She also mentioned concerns with “teachers trying to get to that couple of children who really want to learn” in a classroom of that size.

Although McMann said she didn’t currently feel sufficiently educated about the district to comment further, she added, “I don’t think I want to miss a board meeting after this. I want to fight for the kids like my son.”

Next up was Amanda Coleman, who wanted to address the socio-economic class status argument head on.

“Some are saying that we should break the kids up — but Lock Haven’s average income is $30,000,” she pointed out. “I don’t think that there’s a huge break in socio-economic status. Quickly looking at the figures, I don’t see that as being an issue.”

She also said that, with the way the schools are placed and where they draw kids from currently, “Dickey is already divided out, to try to even out some of the areas.”

Coleman referenced that Dickey doesn’t just draw its population from its surrounding neighborhoods, but also reaches into Flemington.

She then turned her attention to the point of higher-achieving schools: “When I looked at that slide, I didn’t see a lot of higher-achieving schools. Just a couple-point difference … not a big difference to me.”

Coleman also expressed her concern about Dickey’s Title I funding, saying, “Kids might not have the same opportunities at other schools because of a lack of funding.”

As for school choice, she agreed that it is available.

But that funding, she said, “is throughout the state — the money is grabbed up almost instantly. I do know that for a fact.”

Of Dickey, she had special compliments for the school’s guidance counselor and the art therapy technique they use.

She commended Dickey’s teachers for being “top-notch at communicating with parents.”

Coleman closed by reminding the board and the public “the kids aren’t deaf or blind — they know what’s going on,” and, “this has been very stressful for them. It’s a huge burden and a huge worry, and is by itself putting their learning at risk.”

The next speaker was Brian Delaney of Lock Haven, who spoke briefly on the social diversity issue.

Delaney, a former Dickey student himself, said, “I’m doing pretty well for myself so I can say for most of them, that’s improving.”

He also addressed the waiver that McCoy mentioned. “We were told it did not exist. I wanted to send my child to Robb, not Dickey, but couldn’t,” he said, citing Dickey’s test scores.

“I just drove back from Ohio, a 10-hour trip, but I’m here to support the school,” he continued.

He also echoed other speakers’ concerns: “What happens the next trouble time? Close down yet another school?”

After Delaney, McCoy quickly spoke again, responding to the waiver question.

“For the record, it is a policy, adopted June 15, 2017 — maybe that was after your request, but it’s #206 in the policy manual, which is on the website,” she said.

Following McCoy, McMann also provided a final rebuttal on the waiver subject, commenting that she had “looked on the website, and it’s a wreck.”

Jim Foster — the first community speaker of the evening — also had some more thoughts to share in response to the low test scores.

“We had a PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) meeting and four board members attended it, and there were things brought up about the test scores,” he said.

Foster mentioned some “things that may have made some parents angry,” that the principal at Dickey implemented, “but the scores are improving… in all tested areas, the scores are continuing to improve.”

Derek Smith of Mill Hall was the final community speaker of the evening, and he chose to “give a different perspective.”

“My sister lives in Castanea and teaches at Bald Eagle,” he said. “I do her taxes. She has been there seven years, but she is still making less than the starting salary for Keystone Central.”

Smith vehemently defended the value of a teacher and firmly said, “Every teacher who works for the district deserves what they’re paid.”

But he cautioned, “Given the rural climate and spread of this area, I don’t think there’s a proper reflection,” suggesting Keystone cannot afford the higher teacher salaries it’s paying.

With the community speakers finished, the hearing turned to Keystone school board members.

First to speak was Wayne Koch.

“I represent Sugar Valley and I understand your pain,” he began. “I was not on the board for the high school (consolidation), but I was for the elementary school. I fought tooth and nail to keep that building open.”

He continued by addressing his own feelings on the subject: “I want you to understand my frustration here, and what I’m angry about. There’s a limited amount of money in the pot. The biggest and overwhelming reason is the lack of concern from Harrisburg.”

Keystone Central is “limited in where we can get the revenue — we can only raise the taxes so much, to the index,” he said.

Koch also cited factors beyond the district’s control, such as the significant rate of contribution to the teacher retirement fund and the cost of health care insurance for employees and retirees.

“During the prosperous times in the ’90s… the (pension) fund had three sources of income: teachers, state, school district,” he explained. “The teachers’ rate is changed by action of the state Legislature. The amount paid by state and district is regulated by the market.”

Koch said the wheels on the district’s current problem actually fell off years ago.

“If the state had the foresight in the ’90s to maintain a higher level of (pension) contribution… but then the recession in 2008 hit,” he said. “The bottom fell out. The investments dried up. And so the contribution rates skyrocketed. From nothing to more than 30 percent, and it’s going to go higher.”

Koch then transitioned, saying the “school boards of the past did have some foresight and did build up the reserve fund. We could’ve been in this five or six years ago, but we did build it up.”

According to Koch, the “ultimate insult” came in 2011, when “state subsidies were reduced to the tune of about $1 billion. In Keystone, that meant a $7 million decrease in state subsidies.”

Dr. Lonoconus’s budget presentation last Thursday shows the district is still facing a $7.7 million deficit even after multiple job and program cuts — a comparison that Koch drew.

“It’s time we start getting on the backs of our state legislators to do something,” Koch asserted.

“We could raise the state income tax by 1 percent. They could almost balance the state budget (with that new revenue) and increase state subsidies,” he suggested as an option.

Alternatively, he also mentioned taxing natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale, saying Pennsylvania is the “only state that does not tax the gas at point of extraction. Multi-billions of gas get taken out of the state and sold elsewhere… we’re not reaping (full) benefits as a state.”

Koch also said he sees potential in fixing the state’s corporate income tax.

“We have one of the highest (tax rates) in the nation, but it has so many loopholes,” he said. “All business and industries are too small to qualify for being exempt in Clinton County, but 70 percent of all businesses and industries in Pennsylvania get away with paying no corporate income tax.”

Board member Billie Rupert then followed up with some comments of her own.

Rupert referenced her questions of the pre-k grant at the program planning meeting last Thursday, noting that it is “ironic that pre-K is being funded, while school after school after school throughout the state is being shut down.”

“It’s a problem when the state can continue shoving money at other projects without helping where the money is needed,” she continued.

Rupert urged community members to “do something proactive, write your leaders in Congress.”

Board member Bo Miller also had comments at the end of the night.

“We are all trying to educate ourselves better on all of these issues, so we do ask questions,” Miller stated, noting that questions need to be asked, questions like: “What are the financial costs of relocating students, as well as transportation support costs; do we have adequate physical space to contain displaced students; and what is the cost of deferred maintenance and capital projects to keep Dickey open?”

” I’d like to go on record to state, as well, that even though I was one of the five who voted to have this hearing, that does not mean that I am in favor of closing Dickey or any other facility — but I want more information,” Miller continued. “Before any kind of decision can be made, we need information… and that’s what this process is about.”

“We don’t want this any more than anyone else does. We want to keep the facility open. Bad thing is, we just aren’t seeing the financial ability to do everything that we want to do,” Miller concluded.

Board member Roger Elling also commented briefly, saying, “I agree, I agree, I agree. These three just said everything that I’m feeling and thinking, except that I didn’t vote to do the proceedings.”

Elling referenced an event a year ago, when Bucktail believed they were in danger of being closed, although no public hearings were ever held.

According to Elling, concerned citizens from Renovo approached him about starting a letter campaign to save their school.

“We need a letter-writing campaign from Dickey,” according to Elling.

“It needs to get out there, it needs to get down to Harrisburg,” he continued. “Help us to help you. Start a letter-writing campaign.”

Once again, if readers want to submit a question or comment and have it be included in the permanent record submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, they must submit such “within the next 30 days from the date of this hearing,” attorney Carl Beard said at Monday’s meeting.

Questions and comments can be directed by email to superintendent@kcsd.us, or by calling 570-893-4900, extension 2325.