District to study reopening school

In the two months that the Altoona Area School Board is putting its high school project on hold, district administrators are studying what it would take to reopen the Washington-Jefferson Elementary School.

Both the delay of the high school project and the study of the Washington-Jefferson building on First Street were requested last week in separate motions by board member Dave Francis and passed on 5-4 votes.

Superintendent Charles Prijatelj plans to have something to present by March, he said.

Francis said his motion to re-establish Washington-Jefferson was not related to his other motion involving the plan for the high school project. He said it was meant as a quick fix to elementary school overcrowding. One elementary school currently teaches students in mobile classrooms outside its building.

“I’m trying to get a quick fix and get the elementary schools less crowded so they don’t have to be in trailers,” he said Thursday.

The closure of Washington-Jefferson and Wright elementary schools in June 2013 exacerbated capacity issues at other Altoona Area schools.

Sharon Bream and Ron Johnston were on the previous board that closed the two elementary schools, although Johnston voted against closing them.

The Wright building has been sold. And re-establishing Washington-Jefferson may not be a quick fix, administrators said.

Although Washington-Jefferson is not an elementary school anymore, it is already “online” as 12 classrooms house pre-kindergarten programs. The rooms are leased by Alternative Community Resource Program and Head Start. About five rooms remain open in the building.

Francis’ desire to re-establish Washington-Jefferson or at least fill its open classrooms with students from overcrowded schools carries many variables, said board President Dutch Brennan. Those variables include how to redistrict students if Washington-Jefferson was reopened as an elementary school and where to house preschool programs.

“How much will this cost to look into this?” Hoover asked. Hoover, Bill Ceglar, Vice President Wayne Hippo and Brennan opposed all of Francis’ motions. They were outnumbered 5-4 by Kelly Irwin Adams, Ed Kreuz, Bream and Johnston who supported Francis.

A study of what it would take to re-establish Washington-Jefferson as an elementary school would begin in-house at no cost besides administrators’ time, Prijatelj said. But eventually, redistricting could include some consulting, he said.

“You are asking to redistrict a lot of kids,” Prijatelj said to Francis on Monday.

Redistricting or reorganizing school attendance areas by address is an issue that stirs controversy from parents. In the wake of closing the schools in 2013, the topic drew many complaints and crowds to board meetings.

The high school project that Francis’ first motion delayed was designed to help resolve the elementary overcrowding problem without redistricting school boundaries in addition to replacing the 90-year-old high school B building with one having appropriately sized classrooms by modern standards.

The $88 million high school project would move ninth-graders from the junior high school, allowing sixth-graders from all district elementary schools to attend the junior high, making it a middle school.

While Francis is against the price tag for the project, he is in favor of grade realignment.

“I am for ninth-graders in the high school,” he said Thursday, noting its affect on resolving the capacity issues at the elementary school level.