Parents protest school closings

Parents, especially from low-income families, let Altoona Area school board members know that they are upset with plans to close two neighborhood schools and that they think it’s hopeless to try to change the board members’ minds.

And it’s not just parents from Wright and Washington-Jefferson elementaries, which are slated to close, speaking out.

“We feel like we are being bullied because this isn’t the first time we’ve been through this,” Juniata Gap parent Anna Dill said.

In conjunction with the closings, the plan calls for redrawing boundaries for elementary schools districtwide and eliminating boundary exceptions that parents have used for their children to attend a school more convenient for day care purposes. More than 1,000 students, some who have been shuffled to other schools in the past, will be affected.

“It was the students in neighborhood around McAuliffe Heights Program at Irving school who were picked up and moved to Juniata Gap. We were told when we moved to Juniata Gap, our students would have priority at McAuliffe Heights if we wanted it. There is now a six-year waiting list. I live within a block of McAuliffe Heights and cannot get my child there,” Dill said.

The tone of public hearings conducted Monday night was set by a 45-minute informational presentation leaving a small amount of time for public comment, but parents took to the stage for more than an hour past the allotted time for the first of two public hearings on the potential closings.

The board’s architect outlined the plans to close Washington-Jefferson and Wright schools for the 2013-14 school year and rezone other schools in the district.

Children including Dill’s son, who lives near the McAuliffe Heights Program at Irving Elementary School and attends Juniata Gap, will be reassigned to Juniata Elementary.

The Irving school had been a neighborhood elementary school until 1996 when the board made it the district’s only magnet school. Parents must apply for their children to attend and agree to a dress code and parental involvement requirements to benefit from top notch technology and detailed staff development.

As a result of Irving school’s conversion to a magnet school, students who would have otherwise attended Irving as a regular public school have been bused to Juniata Gap.

“We are the same neighborhood moved from Irving to Juniata Gap, and now you are going to take our kids who are used to this school and move them again, and it’s because the neighbors are low income. They have no ability to stand up and speak for themselves,” Dill said.

Later in the hearing, school board President Ryan Beers offered a response to Dill. Of the nine board members present for the hearing, he was the only one to speak.

“It’s not our intent to target any one group of students to be moving people. It just so happens the areas where we had a mass exodus were in the areas of Wright and Washington-Jefferson, Penn Lincoln and W-J.”

Wright and Washington-Jefferson elementaries are within walking distance for families, many of whom do not have vehicles or money for taxi fare.

“Wright is in a low-income area. If my daughter gets sick in the middle of class, then what do I do?” asked Carrie Varner. “There are a lot of people in the exact same situation as me.”

Beers said he empathized with parents, but said there will be consequences whether the schools remain open or close.

“It is viable to keep these buildings. But there are consequences with that as well. There will be staff increases; there’s probably going to be tax increases to accommodate those things; and it’s a matter of how do you most judiciously,” Beers said before being interrupted by rising murmurs in the crowd.

Some parents including Andy Butterbaugh spoke about the more than 700 students who attend schools in the district on boundary exceptions for reasons including convenient day care for parents like Butterbaugh and his wife who both work 40 hours per week.

“I pay my taxes; I never ask anything of you,” he said to the board. “But as a taxpayer and citizen, this is not good enough for me.”

The plan calls for realigning school attendance to balance out class sizes districtwide.

The board plans to convert computer labs and art rooms into regular classrooms to accommodate the change. “Computers on Wheels” and “Art in a Cart” will fill student needs, the board plans.

Perent Heather Morris considers that plan unfair, considering the board’s plans do not propose changes to the district’s magnet school, McAuliffe Heights, where students receive their own laptops.

“You are going to put art in a cart and cut down computer labs, but at the magnet school, they have everything offered to them,” Morris said.

Several parents argued that if equitable education is the board’s goal, McAuliffe Heights should be rezoned also.

Students in the magnet school are advanced while low-income parents including Morris, who live in the immediate area near the school, say they have been promised priority access to the school but have been put on a waiting list.

A new piece of information coming from Monday’s public hearing is that if the schools close, the district will have to operate eight additional buses, increasing transportation costs by $158,000. Annual savings of closing the schools will be $1.5 million.

The board must wait 90 days before voting on closing Washington-Jefferson and Wright schools.