School Board hears Dickey parents at public hearing

PHIL MAPSTONE/FOR THE EXPRESS Parents, students and friends attend the Dicky School public hearing on Monday night at Keystone Central.

MILL HALL – Around ten community members spoke Monday night before the assembled Keystone Central School Board, as well as an auditorium full of their peers, many of whom were wearing blue for Dickey.

Some spoke on behalf of the school, out of a desire to preserve their sense of community, class sizes, and teacher relationships.

Several others, though, spoke with arguments to close Dickey: saying that its test scores are too low, that the overall budget is more important, and that socio-economic diversity is a positive influence on the students.

Regardless, the eight attending members of the school board heard them all, at the beginning of a process of information-gathering that looks to take three months at bare minimum, according to the introductory speech by attorney Carl Beard.

Beard was asked to assist with Monday’s hearing. Hailing from the greater Altoona area, Beard and his firm have been representing school districts for 31 years.

PHIL MAPSTONE/FOR THE EXPRESS Parents, students and friends attend the Dicky School public hearing on Monday night at Keystone Central.

As part of the process, Beard brought a court stenographer with him, to record the night’s proceedings and comments, as required by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education.

“No action is being taken tonight,” Beard began.

” Attend the school board meetings with more questions or comments, “ he continued.

If readers want to submit a question or comment and have it be included in the permanent record submitted to the PA Dept. of Education, they must be submit such “within the next 30 days from the date of this hearing,” Beard said.

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

At this point, Dr. Lonoconus gave a short presentation on Dickey Elementary, as well as some state-wide data.

One early interesting mention is that while the district is not required to undertake a feasibility study, as Beard testified when “clearing up some urban legends” during his introduction, the administration is recommending that the board do so anyway.

This ties in with the presentation by HUNT Engineering at last Thursday’s regular work session, as they would be a contender to execute this feasibility study.

A feasibility study basically expands a concept by looking at two questions: will an idea work, and should you proceed with it?

For a school district in Keystone’s position, it will likely attempt to provide answers to questions of efficient transportation, how to distribute students, and so forth which neither the administration nor the board has available currently.

From there, Dr. Lonoconus presented projected enrollment data.

Of note: projected totals are decreasing with time in the projections. For example, Dr. Lonoconus’s data showed roughly 4400 students enrolled in Keystone Central in 2011-12, but projections are showing that number dropping to 3700 by 2025.

Dr. Lonoconus’s presentation also featured academic scores within the district’s elementary schools, as of the 16/17 school year.

r Dickey: 55

r Liberty-Curtin: 69.9

r Mill Hall: 77.3

r Renovo: 63.9

r Robb: 60.3

r Woodward: 57

Other interesting points from Dr. Lonoconus’s presentation:

r There would be furlough of staff if Dickey were to close – 13 teachers, 1 counselor, 1 administrator, 2 custodians, 1 secretary, 4 cafeteria workers.

r The total cost of Dickey is $2.376 million, or 1.40 mills. This is based on the current year’s budget. Due to furloughs, personnel savings would be closer to $1.6 million.

r Off cost of utilities, Dickey is a pretty efficient building, only costing $76, to run for the year.

r Operational costs per student show $8,112 at Dickey, compared to the lowest, Robb, at $7,714, and the highest, Renovo, at $10,988.

r If the school is closed, the Tiger Den playground would hopefully remain as a community park, per the recommendation of the administration.

Dr Lonoconus’s presentation also include a grim note: Dickey Elementary stands to require a number of capital projects to keep running. The slide included the following: renovate classrooms, library, and cafeteria / gym area; roof; fire alarm system; windows; playground fence and blacktop; and paving.

All of these items were listed as what will be required as minimum within the next five years at Dickey, just to “keep the building running,” according to Dr. Lonoconus.

Dr. Lonoconus closed this portion of the hearing by warning that “more school consolidations will be seen, as well as closing schools. There are lots of tough decisions in the climate in PA, not just endemic to our district, but is going on across the state.”

At this point, the hearing shifted to community speakers.

First up was Jim Foster, of Lock Haven, who focused much of his speaking on concerns about bullying, especially as caused by increased class sizes, as well as the difficulty that increasing class sizes would cause teachers who try to reach out for 1-to-1 attention with struggling students.

He also expressed a dose of skepticism regarding the district’s financial history, saying that “we’ve closed several schools over the last 25 years – closing another one is just a bandaid.”

According to Foster, “I would rather have a little less money in the reserves for a couple years, as a grandparent with a child in Dickey.”

Following Foster was Brian Witner.

Said Witner, “class size matters a lot.”

He then reference an article from the Washington Post: “based on evidence from research, increasing class sizes damages long-term human capital formation. The payoff from low class size is highest to low-income students.”

He also referenced a Facebook petition that had been circulating amongst parents.

“As of today, it had 350 signatures,” Witner said.

Furthermore, some signatures came from other Keystone school district elementary schools, according to Witner.

He also mentioned concerns with overcrowded buses, saying that kids are already “sitting in aisles or 3 to a seat.”

“For me and a lot of other parents, we don’t want to send our kids to a school where they won’t get their best education because of large class sizes,” he added.

Witner also attacked a perceived mismatch of time spent at board meetings, citing a prior board meeting as an example, where “45 minutes talking about laptops versus barely 5 on closing the school. $500,000 to resurface the athletics field versus closing the school.”

Witner defended the Career and Technological Center programming, however.

“Not all students from KCSD will go on to college,” he said.

Witner closed by addressing the socio-economic argument head-on.

“I’m all for kids meeting other kids, and of different economic or social backgrounds. Sports, YMCA , youth camps, etc as a place to go to meet over students, not from closing a school.

Following Brian Witner came his son, Noah Witner.

Noah is 7 years old, in the 2nd grade at Dickey elementary.

“Plenty of adults who have voiced concerns about the closing of my school,” Noah began.

“When I asked if any of the kids stood up to speak, he said no. He asked me if I wanted to speak – I’m a little scared, but I feel that the students of Dickey Elementary needed a voice,” he said, a bit nervous but still brave.

Noah continued: “when I was in kindergarten, the school board felt that 25 kids per class was too many. The board approved a third teacher and each class had around 18 kids. I was one of the student taken out of my original class and put into a new one.”

“Now, you’re going back on what you did two years ago,” he said.

Noah expressed concern that “we will have the new kid label placed on us. We don’t want this label placed on us.”

Board member Bo Miller interrupted the order briefly to applaud Noah, saying that it “required a lot of bravery to stand up.”

He mentioned a personal anecdote, saying that “approximately 23 years ago, I was standing up in front the school board defending my school, Sugar Valley, from the same fate. I was unsuccessful and I guess I turned out alright, but you should know that your efforts don’t go unnoticed.”

Next up was Dave Neville of Lock Haven, who only spoke briefly and just wanted to “point out that Dickey was on the PA Dept Education was in bottom 15% of all schools in PA, on the low achieving list.”

He continued that students there were receiving “markedly a poor education.”

Neville also said that he was for the “assimilation of the student body into the more successful schools,” and that there was a “lack of socio-economic diversity amongst the schools, and closing Dickey would help that.”

Several other parents and community members, including Elizabeth McCoy, Mary Lundt, Samantha Berry, Nicolina McMann, Amanda Coleman, Brian Delaney, and Derek Smith, also spoke following this, and their comments will be published in a subsequent article on Wednesday.

Following the public section of the hearing, Dr. Lonoconus made some closing remarks.

“This is a very emotional topic, and a lot of hard decisions needing to be made. No two ways around it,” he said, but also that the board and the administration are “looking at every avenue to make this thing work.”

Dr. Lonoconus also assured the public that “at least while I’m sitting in this chair, the students’ education is first and foremost.”

“Some decisions may not be met with a lot of acceptance — there may even be a lot of opposition,” he warned, cautioning that “we do have a financial responsibility to our community to consider, as well.”

“I applaud you for your polite discourse. Again, though I’m sure there will be many more informational sessions, I promise you, there will be as much transparency as possible,” he finished.

Board Vice President Deb Smith closed the meeting by saying that although “Charles Rosamilia could not be here tonight, he wanted to pass on that not a one of us up here who wants to close Dickey.”

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