Full speed ahead.
Through a public hearing held Monday night at the Struthers Library Theatre, the Warren County School District has taken the first step in closing five elementary schools throughout the county as part of a five-year plan, put forth by Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel that was subsequently adopted by the board as the district's Master Facilities Plan in March.
As part of converting Sheffield and Eisenhower to K-12 facilities, Monday's hearing addressed the potential closure of Sugar Grove and Russell Elementary Schools in the northern attendance area as well as Allegheny Valley and Sheffield Elementary in the eastern attendance area.
The session also reviewed the closure of South Street Early Learning Center as, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education enrollment projections, K-5 in the central attendance area will be able to be consolidated at Warren Area Elementary Center.
"It is the administration's hope that the board and public will come to agree with the administration that closing the five schools is in the best interest of the district," Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel said. "The closure of all five schools is necessary to implement the Master Facilities Plan."
But there's a condition.
Hufnagel said that the schools should "only be closed upon completion of the K-12 project in each attendance area...If these do not occur, it is the position of the district for the impacted schools to remain open."
As for construction, "It is our hope that we will have shovels in the ground next fall," Hufnagel said, indicating that he is "hoping" that construction on the K-12 projects will be completed by the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
The elementary schools in the northern and eastern attendance will be closed with the K-12 facilities opening for the 2015-2016 school year.
As for South Street, school district administration believe that the merger will occur for the 2014-2015 year.
The long-range plan, put forth by Hufnagel in January, seeks to save money and maximize resources.
The first step, already implemented for next school year, is shifting the boundary between Russell and Sugar Grove Elementary Schools west, saving approximately $400,000 annually, primarily through reductions in staffing.
The closure of South Street, and the subsequent move to WAEC, is projected to save $772,500 annually with the implementation of the K-12 facilities producing savings in the range of $1.3 million. Given reduced maintenance costs, among other things, Hufnagel expects total savings through the implementation of the plan to be in the range of $2.4 million to $2.7 million.
But beyond the financial benefits, Hufnagel laid out practical educational benefits as well.
Specifically, said Hufnagel, "increased teacher collaboration more teachers of the same grade level at the same building we're becoming more efficient. We won't have to duplicate things in each building because we will be reorganizing them in to one. There are benefits educationally, not just cost savings measures, for the Warren County School District.
Administration's presentation also touted increased access to guidance and library services, more efficient use of teacher time, flexibility in the use of support staff and improved accessibility to special education services, specifically because not all special education services are available at each building.
And the benefits largely come without longer bus rides.
"Some kids will have a little longer bus ride, some kids might have a little shorter bus ride," Transportation Director Mike Kiehl said in response to a question from board member Dr. Paul Yourchisin. "As a general overall scope, I don't see changes to my bus routes. How they are running today is how they will run in the future."
Kiehl said that he strives to have no bus route be longer than one hour "from first on to last off" and was optimistic that the target can be met with the proposed changes.
One reason is that 74 percent of buses in the central attendance area stop at WAEC and all but one in the northern attendance area and all in the eastern attendance area stop at Eisenhower and Sheffield, respectively.
In conclusion, Hufnagel asked the board three questions. "What do we want to provide for the students of Warren County? How much are we willing to pay for the desired education? How will we pay for increasing costs of education in Warren County?"
"I believe K-12 is one of our answers," he added.
Several of the approximately 30 people in attendance offered their insights during the public comment portion of the hearing with the proposal receiving mixed responses.
"I cannot find any common sense as to why these buildings should remain open," Paul Mangione said. These buildings should have been closed years ago...They're just that. They're buildings. Can a building teach children? No."
Mangione asked that a master education plan now be a task that the board undertakes.
Kim Angove also called for a master education plan but praised the work of the district administration. "There are many people from the northern attendance area that are refreshed by a new plan...I share that sentiment. It was refreshing to see tonight that it is not only a new plan but that it is well thought out."
While the majority of the feedback was in favor of the proposal, there was opposition.
One individual commented that "Closing our elementary (school) in Sugar Grove is not good news....They keep businesses in town. Our community school holds things together. When communities lose their schools, communities lose."
Diane Elmquist expressed concern about the debt that the district would take on, nearly $30 million in total. "I believe that Brandon (Hufnagel) put a lot of effort into it but it was a reactionary plan," she said, indicating that the plan was put forward as a response to the charter application submitted by the Community School Ownership Initiative, Inc. last November.
The board of school directors now enters a mandatory 90-day waiting period before further action can be taken on the closure question.