AASD closing two schools

After months of deliberation, the Altoona Area School District is closing Wright and Washington-Jefferson elementary schools.

The decisions by the Altoona school board were made separately Tuesday night, with votes that were unclear until the last moment.

“I didn’t know whether it would pass or not,” Board President Ryan Beers said.

The board does not anticipate enacting employee furloughs to accompany the closings, but that appeared to be a minimal comfort to teachers who hugged tearful children after the meeting at the Altoona Area Junior High School auditorium.

One parent of four children affected by Wright’s closing, Kimberly Lockard (no relation to longtime board member Dick Lockard) tried to console two of her crying children after the decision was made.

“They didn’t know,” she said. “Tuesday [was] the last day of school, and they never had a chance to say goodbye. It’s not fair. Their teachers are like second mothers and fathers.”

Beers said the board has been considering closing the schools for several years. Enrollment has declined and is projected to continue declining.

The board’s architect, Vern McKissick, estimated the decisions could save millions of dollars over the next five years on energy and operations, as well as avoiding maintenance costs.

Beers, Vice President Maryann Joyce Bistline, Skip Dry, Cheryl Rupp, Tim Lucas, Elizabeth Chapman and Dick Lockard voted to close Washington-Jefferson. Sharon Bream, on vacation, was absent.

Ron Johnston cast the only no vote, but he was joined by Lockard in voting against closing Wright.

Lockard voted to close Washington-Jefferson because the board will transfer its preschool services to that building, and with only 248 students currently served at the school, “It’s only half full,” he said.

Wright, though, was a different story for Lockard.

He and Johnston attended a talent show on Monday at Wright. The school’s 320 students performed dance numbers and magic acts, and at the end of the show, the students held up a sign reading, “Please don’t close Wright School.”

“I turned to Dick and I said, ‘I got a soft heart. I can’t close this school,'” Johnston said. “Dick said, ‘I got a soft heart, too.”’

Johnston said he doesn’t want Wright and Washington-Jefferson students to end up in class sizes of 25 to 30 at other elementary schools.

From the crowd estimated to be about 100, Steve Kiser, Melinda McCloskey, Carrie Varner and Renee Wyland addressed the board.

McCloskey’s son attends Washington-Jefferson. He has special needs but is earning As and Bs because teachers “know how to deal with him,” she said.

She expressed concerns that if her son, currently in a class of 22 students, is put in a larger class, he will suffer.

The board is anticipating an average class size, districtwide, of 25 to 26 students, Beers said.

Wyland, a parent-teacher organization president of one of the closing schools, criticized the board for closing the schools without having a sure plan for where all students will attend school next year.

“You should have been prepared to tell us what’s going on,” she said.

Kimberly Lockard is unsure who will teach her children next year. She isn’t even certain which school her children will attend.

“The report said they’d go to Juniata Gap, but we are right in the area of Ebner,” she said.

She rejected any theory that children will adapt well to their new schools. She speaks from experience as one of her older teenage children switched school districts at age 13 and was “completely different,” she said.

“Roots and stability are the most important things in a child’s life,” she said.

School boundary lines resulting from the closings are roughly figured out and have been published on McKissick’s website. There will be tweaks made for transportation and kindergarten enrollment, so the board could not yet answer specifics.

Parents don’t know their children’s teachers for next year, and the board was not allowed to make arrangements prior to official board action, Beers said, citing reasons of “school code, legal advice and advice from McKissick.”

Acting Superintendent May Lou Ray said the district will know enrollment numbers in the next two weeks and will send out [informational] letters as soon as possible.

“[But] it could be the beginning of August,” she said.

Johnston’s and Lockard’s reasons for voting against closing the schools are also based in some simple logic.

“We have no buyer for Wright,” Lockard said.

“If they could sell it, OK,” Johnston said. “[But] if you can’t sell it, keep it open.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.