AASD sifting through options

The Altoona Area school board could be on schedule to vote on a potential elementary school closing near the end of this school year.

Tim Lucas has been through talk about closing schools for years as a means of re-evaluating how to use district resources, but closing options were presented for the first time recently by McKissick and Associates owner and architect Vern McKissick.

“I was shocked by the wide array of potential,” Lucas said days after the meeting.

The options ranged from ideas tossed around for years to others that were completely “off the wall.”

Looking at the options, board President Ryan Beers told McKissick, “I feel lost.”

The options did not include how school closings would affect class size, transportation or utility cost savings, but if the board gained any sure footing from the options, it’s that enrollment will probably remain consistent through 2020 and there is plenty of empty room in the district’s buildings.

The district’s total excess capacity between elementary and secondary schools is 2,900 seats and potentially 3,500 seats with further renovation.

“That’s the equivalent of another school,” McKissick said.

He presented five sets of closing scenarios, each set with about five variations, solely based on building capacity and population of attendance areas.

“Not all are keepers, but they are definitely proof we looked at all potentiality out there,” he said.

Superintendent Dennis Murray said a major goal is to “get something closed for next year. And then maybe expand the closings.”

Option No. 1 was to close one or to two schools.

“That is really where your head’s been previously,” McKissick said to the board.

Two buildings would “definitely” be possible for next year, he said.

The first option conceptualized the closing of Wright Elementary and possibly Washington-Jefferson or Penn-Lincoln because they are in the least populated attendance areas, McKissick’s report showed.

“In reality, no one building is most apparent to close,” Beers said. “These options don’t have any information on staffing, class size or bottom dollar saved.”

Beers said his first priority is to go with the “route of least pain,” which he said is to sell auxiliary buildings not used for education or “get them off the taxpayers’ dime.”

District storage at a former Furrer Beverage building and tax offices at two other buildings might find new locations inside schools with excess capacity.

The second option set showed a possibility for two to three schools closing if capacity across the district is recaptured from elementary school computer labs and other spaces such as large group instruction areas, McKissick said.

“Computer labs are not in demand as they once were. It’s all going into classrooms,” McKissick said.

Option set three is “a slightly different direction,” he said, because of its proposed building project.

Keith and Roosevelt junior high schools closed in 2008, after the combining of the two junior highs into the newly constructed Altoona Area Junior High at 1400 Seventh Ave.

With a new school built on the former Keith athletic field, four to five elementary schools could close.

“With this option you’d be looking at a new building to serve the city essentially, rather than trying to drag students to buildings on the periphery,” McKissick said.

Board members including Lucas and Beers said it was “off the wall.”

“I don’t think there is any chance of building a new school on Keith Field,” Beers said.

The fourth option, to close four elementary schools, would necessitate grade level changes in buildings districtwide.

It may sound like “sacrilege” to change the 5-year-old junior high to a sixth- to eighth-grade middle school, McKissick said. “But we thought we should put it out there as to what we’ve done for alternatives,” he added.

Elementary schools would serve kindergarten to fifth grade, the middle school would have sixth to eighth grades, ninth-graders would be relocated to a closed elementary school or move into the senior high school.

During the meeting, Ron Johnston read a letter he received that shone a favorable light on that option.

“By moving sixth-graders to the junior high, changing it to a middle school, it would help develop a rigorous curriculum as sixth-graders would be out of elementary atmosphere and exposed to a more challenging learning environment,” he said, reading from the letter. “It makes sense from an athletic point of view for ninth-graders to be in the high school because many of them are on high school teams.”

When McKissick asked them whether he should leave that option in plans for further consideration, board members nodded. But Lucas said if grade changes would happen it would be in the next eight to 20 years. Beers said that would probably never happen.

As for option five, McKissick called it “very extreme,” but he is doing something similar at Williamsport currently.

The district would close five kindergarten to sixth-grade schools, turn the remaining elementary schools into kindergarten through fourth grades and make middle schools fifth through eighth grades.

“That will be tight with the capacity of the junior high,” McKissick said. “But thought I’d put it out there to show you it doesn’t work [for Altoona].”

McKissick and the board plan to “flesh out” and refine the options Feb. 4. McKissick would format them for publication on the district’s website.

“We’ll be looking for public input in mid-February,” Beers said.

To close a building for next year, the board must hold a public hearing and advertise that meeting no less than 15 days prior to the date of the hearing.

Following the public meeting, the board must wait 90 days to vote on a plan.

On that schedule, the board could vote on a building closing by mid-May.

“Our discussion is not about bad buildings and good buildings,” McKissick said. “Your buildings are generally in great shape. It’s about buildings in the right place and too many buildings. In a nutshell, that’s where we are at.”