June 21, 2008

Connellsville School District Drops Plan to Close 3 Schools

By Mary Pickels; Liz Zemba

A group of parents and concern citizens applaud when Attorney Richard Bower that the court has order Connellsville Area School District to rescind its closing of three elementary schools and the reconfiguration of grades in the school district.

The Connellsville Area School District has backed off plans to shutter three elementary schools and reconfigure grades, putting an end to a civil lawsuit brought by parents and taxpayers who wanted to prevent both actions.

During an appearance Thursday before Fayette County Judge Ralph Warman, attorneys for the two sides announced that the lawsuit was settled after an earlier pretrial conference held before the same judge.

Terms of the agreement call for the school board to rescind the May 21 motion that called for the closure of Dunbar Borough, South Side and Connellsville Township elementary schools. The board is to rescind a motion that was to have reconfigured grades.

A group of some 40 parents and taxpayers had filed the civil suit seeking an injunction to prevent both actions.

Carl Beard, attorney for the school district, said yesterday that as a result of the litigation, the school board will revisit its decision.

"As you get into litigation, you want to take a step back and look at things," Beard said yesterday. "At the pretrial conference, we decided it's in the best interests of the community, the school district and everyone to take a step back and take another look at it."

Rich Bower, attorney for the parents and taxpayers, delivered the news yesterday morning to some 25 people who had gathered at Pechin's Firehouse Restaurant in Dunbar Township.

"I don't want to keep you in suspense," Bower said, grinning as he addressed the crowd. "I had a definite idea last night that this was going to happen. The fat lady sang at 10 a.m. So, ladies and gentlemen, you won."

Many who attended the hastily called meeting whipped out cell phones and began calling friends and family, shouting, "We won."

Bower acknowledged that yesterday's action, expected to be voted on by the school board at its Wednesday meeting, may not end the board's efforts to close the schools and reconfigure the grades.

"They can go ahead and get another feasibility study, but that's going to take a while," Bower said.

The lawsuit contended that a feasibility study of four options to close the schools did not include an evaluation of potential savings to the school district. Parents worried that too little time existed to close the schools, transfer students, move equipment and assign teachers before school resumes in August.

Another major concern, according to the lawsuit, was the district's plan to convert the basement of at least one school into classrooms for students displaced from the closed schools. Parents argued the basement classrooms lacked adequate ventilation and had too few exits to ensure student safety.

Gary Wandel, a retired Connellsville schoolteacher, said yesterday's victory belongs to the students.

"The big winner in all of this is not us, it's the kids," Wandel said.

Jane Sandusky, president of Connellsville Area Teachers Association and a teacher at Dunbar Borough Elementary School, said students will welcome word of yesterday's decision.

"The last day of school was a very sad day," Sandusky said. "They were very scared and worried, so they'll be happy to hear this news. I'm quite sure when the buses take them back to Dunbar Borough in the fall they will be happy to be there -- South Side and Connellsville Township, too."

One of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, Wendy DeOre, said she was concerned the grade reconfiguration would have required her 10-year- old daughter, Kaitie, to enter junior high school in fifth grade.

"To me, you should not put a 10-year-old at the level of junior high age group influences," she said.

A hearing that was to be held on the lawsuit yesterday afternoon was canceled after the settlement was announced. Jacob Vigdor, associate professor of public policy at North Carolina's Duke University, had planned to testify for the parents yesterday but instead made an appearance at the restaurant.

Vigdor said his research, which included a review of standardized test scores, showed that children who enter middle school at a younger age tend to do worse academically.

"Making that transition later is better," he said. "Changing schools at any grade is stressful."

Vigdor said it appeared the board's decision to close the schools was based on declining enrollment. Enrollment - declining or increasing, he said - appears to be a factor in similar cases of school closings and grade reconfigurations.

But what appears to be a "cheap and quick fix," he said, is often a "disservice to children."

-- reporter Mike Cope of the Daily Courier in Connellsville contributed to this story.

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