MILL HALL - Thursday evening's meeting to present a plan to close Sugar Valley Elementary School must have been particularly galling to board member Wayne Koch - He represents Sugar Valley, is a former teacher and has opposed the move for a number of reasons, even while recognizing the fiscal storm on the horizon.
At last evening's meeting, in which many of his constituents offered negative comments about the plan, Koch said they weren't alone in their feelings.
While district officials have couched the plan as a way of saving money in difficult economic times, Koch offered a prediction that undermines that argument.
"I'm not sure where to start," said Koch, who represents Loganton and Greene, Logan and Porter townships. "Maybe with a little bit of history."
He pointed to the history of the Sugar Valley High School, which closed more than a decade ago amid controversy that sparked the creation of the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School System.
"It was more than just a school," he said. "It was a social center and a part of the culture of the valley. Events were well attended and it drew the community to those events. The ramifications of closing? The creation of the charter school. I know there are those who will deny it, but facts are facts."
The Sugar Valley educational system, distanced by miles and an agricultural base, was never really a part of the local economy or Keystone Central School District, Koch said, and citizens naturally gravitated to a system that remain local.
"I can't argue about the facts or figures presented tonight, but I can say there will be ramifications again," Koch said. "This move will guarantee the financial security of the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School."
When the district's administrators predicted savings of close to $148,000 a year, Koch rolled his eyes.
"That's only if 100 percent of the students come to Mill Hall Elementary School," he said. "Not all of them are coming. A number will go to the charter school and each student that goes there takes money out of our district's educational system ... They already take $2 million a year from our budget."
Koch predicted as much as 50 percent "defection" if Sugar Valley Elementary closes, which will result in "negligent savings ... or will it be replaced by a cost? What if the defections amount to 70 to 80 percent. This could lead to severe economic troubles and an unbalanced budget. Are we going to re-open the budget in the middle of a fiscal year to raise taxes or eliminate teachers? Is there any doubt where I stand on this?"
Koch said the problem wasn't with Sugar Valley or Keystone Central, and he placed the onus of responsibility directly on the shoulders of a state government in Harrisburg.
"We have a governor who is not a friend to public schools," he said. "Between an index that limits us from raising funds and a state budget that cuts allocations we are handcuffed. We've already eliminated 30 positions in recent years."
As for next year, Koch said, the board will be going beyond elementary schools and will be forced to look at programs like arts, music, technical training and sports.
"If I'm getting you riled up, maybe it's time," he said. We have a new state senator representing us. His name is Joseph Scarnati, and he's the president pro tempore, the second highest office in our state senate. I suggest you call him, write him a letter or email him.
We also have State Sen. Jacob Corman, who is in charge of the Senate Appropriation Committee, which handles financial matters for the state. I urge you to write him as well.
Contact Sen. Scarnati at Senate Box 203025, 292 Main Capitol, Harrisburg, PA 17120, 717-787-7084, and Sen. Corman can be reached at 281 Main Capitol Harrisburg, PA 17120 Phone: 717-787-1377.