August 5, 2008

Central Cambria Board Votes Again to Split Middle School

By Susan Evans, Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Aug. 5--EBENSBURG -- Despite pleas from a crowd of about 100, a majority of Central Cambria school board members stood firm in their earlier vote to abandon the middle school concept and send seventh- and eighth-graders to the high school.

After listening to more than a dozen teachers and parents who want to keep grades 6, 7 and 8 together, the board voted for a third time on the controversy -- and the results were the same.

When challenged by angry members of the public to explain their votes, Frank Singel of Jackson Township said simply, "I think I'm right."

Members Ron Mastrine and Wayne Farabaugh of Cambria Township repeated their position that sixth graders should be sent back to elementary school rather than be mixed with seventh and eighth graders.

Patricia Allbaugh, whose editorial in The Tribune-Democrat on Sunday infuriated some teachers, and Marcia Yesenosky-Shaheen did not explain their reasons.

Members Scott Magley, Jules Dill, and Eric Rummell said they voted to keep the middle school grades intact because they believe that the adolescents have special needs and should not be mixed with high schoolers.

Josh Duman, now a junior at Central Cambria, agreed and told the board that he remembers the clumsiness and awkwardness of that age group.

"I hope the person who said that it does not have an impact rethinks what they say," he told the board.

Gayle Devlin took exception to Allbaugh's article, saying, "We are not a mob," and prompting loud applause from the audience.

"We should be increasing the quality of our school system, not decreasing it," she said. "Please, please reconsider your vote."

Retired teacher Kay Kale reminded the board of the almost 1,700 signatures on petitions presented to them in May by those protesting the closure of the middle school and splitting up the grades.

"We have an absolute right to question authority," she said, referring to some board members' criticism of teachers who are fighting the change.

"Once again, tonight, we ask you to change your minds and do the right thing," she said to more applause.

Despite advertisements asking concerned taxpayers to attend the meeting, just one member of the public expressed concern that keeping the middle school, or building a new one, would be fiscally irresponsible.

Board member Dill, the retired Central Cambria high school principal, said he is opposed to the majority's plan because "in my heart I know that grades 6, 7 and 8 belong together. I don't want seventh and eighth graders in this high school. I believe in the middle school concept," he said, prompting cheers from the audience.

After the meeting, teachers and parents said they were disappointed and would meet to discuss further protests.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised," Tom Nagy said.

The board's choices have included renovating the aging middle slchool building in Ebensburg, but the expense and unknown problems that might be encountered took it out of the running as an option.

Another option has been to build a wing onto the high school to keep the seventh and eighth graders separate, while keeping sixth graders in elementary school.

But the least expensive, majority-favored option is to have seventh and eighth graders use empty space at the high school, while keeping them as separate as possible.

The middle school debate has polarized the Central Cambria district for months, pitting school board members in Jackson and part of Cambria townships against Ebensburg Borough.

Residents have been divided as well, with some saying that declining enrollments have left room at the high school for some middle schoolers. Others argue that the empty space is not adaptable for classrooms, and that seventh and eighth graders could not be separated effectively from high schoolers.

Signs have been posted in yards saying, "Educate, don't separate; save the middle school concept," and at least three previous meetings on the decision have featured shouting matches and booing from the crowd.

As the vote stands now, sixth graders would remain in their elementary schools and seventh and eighth graders would attend the high school.

The aging middle school building, which consultants say would be expensive and risky to renovate, would be closed.


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