The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 22, 2013

Gov pushes to shut schools: Over 200 closed in past two years

HARRISBURG — Julie Finkbiner thinks that small neighborhood schools are “jewels” that serve schools and communities well by providing academic environments that produce young people more connected to the places where they live.

“These small schools are treasures that are being treated like trash,” Finkbiner said.

Finkbiner led an unsuccessful crusade to the save the neighborhood school in New Berlin in Union County.

But Finkbiner was not defeated.

As president of the New Berlin Borough Council, she was able to convince other council members to buy the vacant school.

At the last council meeting, a committee was appointed to consider what to do with the building now. Options include things such as turning it into a day care or home to an after-school program. New Berlin lacks a library, and the local bank that had provided the home to a few shelves for the Union County Public Library moved out of town, too.

It is a fight that is being waged across Pennsylvania in big cities and small villages, such as New Berlin, population 850.

When Gov. Tom Corbett delivered his budget address, busloads of protesters descended on Harrisburg to express outrage over a plan to shutter 29 schools in Philadelphia.

That is on top of the 207 public schools in Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts closed in the first two years of the Corbett administration.

Twenty-eight of them were in 56 rural school districts in nine rural Pennsylvania counties surveyed for this story.

No one seems to know how many more schools will close in 2013.

A Department of Education spokesman said that data about upcoming school closings has not been compiled.

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that while it is not clear how many schools will close, more are on the chopping block.

Corbett’s budget includes only an average 1.65 percent basic education funding increase. Even the $1 billion targeted grant program tied to the liquor privatization proposal would not provide money for the 2013-14 budget year.

Robinson said that he monitors news coverage of school board meetings across the state and that there are numerous districts where school closings are being discussed.

The school closing crisis is driven by multiple factors: Budget pressure tied to state funding, demographics and a bias in the educational system toward launching impressive building projects when less-expensive renovation efforts are possible, experts said.

No matter what factors drive the decision, when a school closes, much of the energy and vitality of the neighborhood goes away as well.

The school closings in Philadelphia are more related to population loss than any shift in state funding.

Elsewhere across the state there have been closings associated with belt-tightening by school boards trying to make ends meet. But in many cases school districts opted to replace existing schools with newer ones, either because state funding formulas made large construction seem more attractive or simply because school leaders wanted to match ambitious construction projects undertaken in other districts, said Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and anti-sprawl advocate.

“There is a culture in education that favors spending a lot of money and building fancy buildings,” Hylton said. “And 91/2 times out of 10, the people on the school board will not question a superintendent about it.”

Hylton, who serves on his local school board, said there are examples all over Pennsylvania of cases where districts opted to build more expensively than necessary while abandoning buildings that could have been renovated.

A decade ago, the New Castle School District decided to replace its 90-year-old high school even though an architect presented the board with a plan to repair the building for less than they planned to spend on construction of a new building, Hylton said. The construction then required the district to seize a dozen homes.

More recently, Lewisburg Area School District is preparing to move its high school on the edge of the downtown to “a cornfield out by the Lewisburg penitentiary” even as Bucknell University has established a prominent footprint in the downtown – by opening a bookstore and helping to save a landmark theater.

Hylton said that if reduced state funding lends some fiscal discipline to school boards, it would be worthwhile.

“You can spend money on kids or you can spend it on buildings,” Hylton said.

When a school leaves, for young families much of the charm of living in a neighborhood leaves as well.

“You might move to a neighborhood because you want your kids to be able to walk to school, but if the kids have to ride the bus because the school closed, you might wonder what is the point of living in the neighborhood, anymore?” Hylton said.

The buildings may remain vacant, or when another use is found, it rarely is the sort of thing that attracts young families. One of the more common ways of recycling schools is to turn them into senior housing, which fills a need but does not exactly replace the void created by the flight of young families, said Bill Fontana, executive director of The Pennsylvania Downtown Center.

“Seniors are less mobile, have less disposable income and it is a population, that, by and large, tends not to get as involved in the community,” Fontana said.

Fontana said that the concerns about the community-damaging impact of closing neighborhood schools was recognized more than a decade ago by the National Trust of Historic Preservation and the Smart Growth Network, which issued a report suggesting, among other things, that when community schools must be replaced that districts replace them with facilities in the same neighborhoods.

Fontana said that there appears to be a trend of developing in some areas where young people are opting to move back into the smaller cities with the intention of raising their families in the community. If that trend begins to pick up steam, it would bode well for many of the communities fighting to keep their schools.

In the meantime, community leaders are fighting to save schools or find some way to recapture the vitality that the neighborhood school once brought.

“It’s been a downward spiral,” Finkbiner said.

After the school closed and the bank left, the postal service announced it might close the local post office.  

New Berlin residents successfully lobbied to keep their post office open.

“But it’s going to be a struggle to reinvent ourselves,” Finkbiner said. “Somebody has to stand up and do the right thing.”

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