June 14, 2008

Connellsville District Contends Suit Has No Merit

By Liz Zemba

Parents and taxpayers who filed a lawsuit seeking to stop Connellsville Area School District from closing three elementary schools and reconfiguring grades have no legal standing to challenge either decision, according to an attorney for the school district.

The school board voted last month to reconfigure grades and close Dunbar Borough, South Side and Connellsville Township elementary schools. Two days later, a group of some 40 parents and taxpayers filed a civil suit seeking an injunction to prevent both actions.

Through Connellsville attorney Richard E. Bower, taxpayers argued enrollment figures do not justify the closures. They said proposed basement classrooms, to be built in existing schools to accommodate transferred students from the closed schools, lack windows, adequate ventilation and emergency exits.

Taxpayers argued there will be no cost savings because the plans do not call for teacher cuts. They said there is not enough time over the summer to close the schools, transfer students, move equipment and assign teachers before school resumes in August.

The plans, taxpayers argued, will pose safety issues because they call for mixing younger students with older pupils, including fifth- and sixth-graders commingling with seventh- and eighth-graders.

In a response filed Wednesday through attorney Carl P. Beard of Altoona, the district contends the taxpayers do not have "legal standing to challenge the actions" of the board in closing the schools and reconfiguring grades.

Beard asked a judge to deny the injunction because school directors are authorized by law to close and reconfigure schools. Beard said the board gave required advance notice through newspaper ads and held a public hearing before taking action.

Enrollment has declined 25 percent in the past 26 years, Beard indicated, from 7,338 students in 1982 to 5,468 in 2006-2007. In just one year, enrollment decreased by 97 students, with 5,371 enrolled in 2007-2008, compared to 5,468 in the previous school year.

The district acknowledged the proposed basement classrooms may not have windows, but Beard noted windows are not required by law. In addition, Beard indicated there are at least 15 existing classrooms at the high school that do not have windows.

Any rooms that do not have adequate ventilation will be renovated before August, according to Beard, who denied allegations the rooms "do not have proper egress or ingress."

Beard said teacher cuts are not planned, but staff reductions will be realized because positions held by six of nine retiring teachers will not be filled. Additional money will be saved as a result of no longer having to operate the closed schools, according to Beard's response.

The district will be ready for upcoming classes because teachers have been given their assignments, according to the response.

"The district has advised teachers to simply pack up their belongings with all other materials, equipment, desks, filing cabinets, etc., to be moved by custodial staff," Beard wrote. "It is denied the district will not be ready to facilitate the change in school reorganization for the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year."

The district contends younger students will not be exposed to older ones because fifth- and sixth-graders who will attend Junior High East and Junior High West will be in different parts of each building. They will not mingle with seventh- and eighth-graders, Beard indicated, because they will have different arrival and dismissal times.

Beard could not be reached for comment. Bower declined to comment.

Oral argument in the case is slated for 1:30 p.m. Thursday before Fayette County Judge Ralph C. Warman.

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