After two public hearing dates, with 112 concerned citizens testifying under oath against the closures, Dr. David Zerbe released a letter to his staff on Thursday to respond to some of the mentioned concerns. The letter was obtained by LP TAP via seveal Facebook postings alerted the public to the comments.
Below is the letter in its entirety, noting Zerbe's responses to the residents many worries.
Dear District Faculty and Staff,
On February 23, 2015, the Board of School Directors held a hearing on the consideration of the possible closing of Arrowhead Elementary School and/or Audubon Elementary School. The hearing was continued for public comment on February 25, 2015. There were three presentations given February 23, 2015. The Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL) presented summary enrollment projections; Thompson Associates Architects and Planners presented capacity data and seven options for consideration and I presented history relative to the matter and provided much of the underlying information for why consolidation should be considered.
I also provided my recommendation to the Board. The district, since its height of enrollment in 2007, has decreased in enrollment by 495 students, of which 177 are from grades K-4. These are actual numbers. Not predicted. The predicted numbers from the commissioned enrollment study suggest that we will continue to see a decrease in enrollment district-wide over the next 5 years by another 264 students or 89 from that total in grades K-4. The hearings included public comment concerning the accuracy of the predictions in the enrollment study.
The vendor who performed the study (PEL) has been doing this type of work since 1936 and their reputation in this field is highly regarded. These facts can be found on the district website under the capacity and enrollment information section. One theme of concern from the public was relative to special education programming. The underlying concerns, as I heard them, focused on how the district will continue to provide students with the same level of special education services if a building is closed.
The community wants specific information on what the program will look like, as well as reassurance of a well thought-out transition plan. In general, the Learning Support, Autistic Support, and Communication classes would still be provided in full-size classrooms as they are today. The district will continue to adhere to special education regulations related to square footage requirements, as well as locating classrooms in the ebb and flow of a building.
Related services, such as speech, OT, and PT would be provided in spaces appropriate for the number of students requiring services and any specialized equipment. These services are already delivered in less than full-size classrooms in several of our elementary schools and we have been providing outstanding service to our children for years. Additionally, pupil service personnel currently travel between buildings and will continue to use shared spaces. As an example, 2 full-size Learning Support Classrooms (K-2) & (Grades 3-4) would remain along with any other specialized programs such as 2 full-size Communications Classrooms (K-2) & (Grades 3-4).
The OT will have a dedicated space in each building. Computer Lab, Technology, Gifted Education, Math Support, ESL Support Services, Reading Support, and IIS will likely share spaces in each building. Another concern from the public comment was classroom size. In my presentation, I outlined the assumptions and core values that I based my recommendation upon. I stated that although Board policy sets certain limits in terms of minimums and maximums for class size, Methacton has traditionally targeted, whenever possible, no greater than 22 students per section for grades K-1 and no greater than 25 student for grades 2-4.
Class size will be a priority given the need for re-drawing of attendance lines. As stated earlier, there were seven options for the Board to consider. These options can be found in the presentation attached. My recommendation was not solely based on the enrollment study. I considered the previous 7 years of enrollment decreases and the excess space available and how that space was utilized in our elementary buildings. I also considered the immediate and long-term capital improvement needs and their projected costs.
I considered the annual operating expenses of each building including utilities, staffing, insurance, etc. Lastly, I considered what happens if we do nothing. The do-nothing option is the easiest to accomplish, maybe. The do-nothing option does not address my responsibility to ensure that we operate an effective and efficient educational system. It furthermore does not address any of our projected budgetary concerns.
We need to improve our overall district efficiencies and operations in order to sustain our level of programs and services. Please understand that nearly 96% of our budget is fixed. This does not imply that closing a school is a way of saving money or fixing the budget. More efficient utilization of our resources and buildings, without jeopardizing our programs and services, may lead to a building closure. When we combine the last 7 years of decreasing enrollment and our projected continuation of decreases over the next 5-10 years, together with the underutilization of our resources (buildings) and their future required capital maintenance, a careful look at this information and our possible options is highly appropriate.
Tax increases alone will not address our obligation to our students and our community. Efficient use of our limited resources will provide sustainability of our shared value in providing the best education possible- a Methacton Education. As an example, our ability to raise taxes will not even cover the annual increase that the PSERS system places on our budget. We will not be able to raise taxes enough to cover that 1 budget item. This is not about getting more money, but better utilizing the resources that we have.
No one likes this process and it is very difficult to address the issue and further communicate every aspect. However, as Superintendent, I must make recommendations that are in the long-term interest of our district, students, parents, and staff. Better utilization of our limited resources, such as buildings, play a significant part in our ability to continue to drive resources to the classroom today and well into the future. My recommendation on Monday evening was based on the information that I have available to me.
The recommendation to the Board was to consider the consolidation of 5 elementary schools with a K-4 configuration to 4 elementary schools, with a K- 4 configuration by closing Audubon Elementary School. The consultant identified several distinguishing characteristics to keep Arrowhead open versus Audubon. Some of these include: Arrowhead is geographically situated for less disruption districtwide when re-drawing attendance areas; Arrowhead is singlestory construction and its site is more conducive to future expansion/construction; Arrowhead is located in a low traffic residential area; and the Arrowhead facility at 40+ years, has more useful life remaining.
If the Board chooses to continue with the process, they will likely need additional information during the next 3 months before a decision can be made. Details regarding re-drawing of boundary lines, pupil transportation, and many other items will need to be addressed with a plan in advance of a final decision to close a building. It will be my recommendation that we form a representative committee of the public (which will include district staff) to assist me in preparing a plan.
In summary, I want you to know that I understand the angst and heightened concern, we as people, students, employees, parents of this district have. The uncertainty surrounding this process and the need for information is difficult at best. Please remain focused on the work before us. I will continue to provide you with updates.