Spring Cove must realign to avoid funding cuts

ROARING SPRING – The $475,000 the federal government gives Spring Cove School District each year pays for teachers and supplies in key elementary reading programs, comprising a large portion of its $22 million budget.

And if the district doesn’t realign its grade levels this year, administrators warned parents at a crowded hearing Tuesday, that money will disappear – leaving deep program cuts or unprecedented tax hikes as the only alternatives.

In an afternoon meeting at the Spring Cove administration office, Superintendent Robert Vadella explained the stakes of realignment to a skeptical crowd of parents and taxpayers, many of whom repeated concerns from a similar debate in 2011.

“Balancing out the load is much more difficult when you have the grades spread throughout buildings,” Vadella said.

Differences in teacher numbers, experience and salary have led to a $1,200-per-student disparity each year in spending between the Martinsburg and Spring Cove elementaries, he said. For a district to receive federal funds, it must keep those disparities within close limits.

The state officials who oversee the funds’ distribution have allowed Spring Cove to game its numbers for two years, he said. But with the warnings getting louder, this could be the last year that Spring Cove gets away with its student-funding imbalance.

To fix the problem, students of a single grade level could attend a single building – instead of two elementaries serving first-graders, for example, all first-graders would attend one school.

But that idea has drawn complaints, both from Freedom Township parents who fear hourlong bus rides for their children and from Martinsburg parents who might lose access to an elementary close to home.

And despite Vadella’s and board members’ reassurances that they haven’t selected a final plan, some in the audience Tuesday accused them of “trying to push an agenda down our throats,” as one former board member put it.

Vadella presented seven possible new arrangements and asked audience members to submit more. But regardless of what they choose, he said after the meeting, the board will almost certainly have to act on realignment before their June 30 budget deadline.

Some in the crowd suggested the board do away with the federal funds entirely, replacing them with local revenue so the district can retain its current grade layout.

“We’re all taxpayers here. It’s all coming out of our pocket whether it’s local or federal,” former board officer Rodney Kensinger said.

Board members quickly threw cold water on the idea: Merely replacing the lost revenue would require a seven-mill tax hike, they said, not counting any increases needed for other expenses. If they decide to raise taxes next year for other needs, the combined hike would be twice their state-mandated maximum, Vadella said.

That would require a districtwide referendum in May – and since 2006, not a single school tax referendum has succeeded in Pennsylvania, Vadella said.

“We can’t lose that money,” board member Amy Acker-Knisely said. “If you’re not willing to fill it with a tax increase, something else will have to be lost.”

Only realignment will guarantee that the money returns, board members said.

Vadella said he left his seven proposals intentionally vague Tuesday, not specifying individual school buildings or commutes. With the 2011 realignment debate – and the talk of Blue Knob-to-Martinsburg commutes – fresh in some parents’ minds, board members said they would avoid the most controversial options.

At the next realignment hearing, set for Feb. 4, officials will likely present a whittled-down list of options with clearly defined costs and benefits, Vadella said. A Jan. 21 hearing is set to address a related problem: the district’s deteriorating buildings, including a 53-year-old high school, which could require costly renovations or replacement in the next few years.

Some parents welcomed the opportunity to see specific realignment plans next month, if only to quiet the wild rumors many said they’ve heard in recent weeks.

“If you came here with a preconceived notion I don’t even know why you came. We’ve heard enough of this: ‘Your agenda, your this, your that,'” board President James Butler told the audience. “We need to figure this out. This is a nut we need to crack.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.