The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 24, 2013

Ferndale against consolidation

JOHNSTOWN — Ferndale Area School District’s geographic outline looks a little like buckshot pattern on a map.

Youngsters from five non-contiguous municipalities comprise the student body: Ferndale Borough, Dale Borough, Brownstown Borough, Lorain Borough and Middle Taylor Township. The little islands are surrounded by four bordering school districts: Greater Johnstown, Westmont Hilltop, Conemaugh Valley and Central Cambria.

Only 800 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend Ferndale. So, whenever talk of school consolidation arises, the district is often mentioned as one that could easily be folded in with its neighbors.

But the Yellow Jackets want to remain on their own.

“We are doing very well,” said Ferndale Area School District Superintendent Carole Kakabar. “We do not need to consolidate. We are holding our own in terms of finances.”

Despite being geographically separated, Kakabar feels the district is a tight-knit community.

“The advantage is the smallness of the district,” she said. “Every teacher knows every student. It’s a small-town feel. It’s kind of a Mayberry R.F.D. feel.”

Ferndale is one of 32 school districts in the local area – Bedford, Cambria, Somerset, part of Westmoreland and part of Indiana counties – and 500 across the commonwealth. There were about 2,700 districts in Pennsylvania as recently as the 1950s. Some want the number decreased further. In 2009, then-Gov. Ed Rendell wanted to study the possibility of cutting the total to 100, which would have reduced the need for superintendents, principals, etc. The idea of countywide school districts has been floated by some state officials.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, is to put forth two proposals to the Legislature: Outright consolidation or shared services between districts without actual consolidation.

But resistance to such changes is often fierce and rooted in small-town school pride.

“You know how to kill a vampire, you know how to kill a werewolf, but getting rid of that school mascot is nearly impossible,” said Wozniak.

Opposition is not only local. “It’s all over the state,” said Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, which helps develop commonwealth-level education policies.

Gerald Zahorchak has experienced the debate from multiple perspectives. He is a current and former Greater Johnstown superintendent who served as state Education Secretary. He has been involved with the Inspired Leadership Initiative and Mid-Atlantic States Laboratory for Student Success.

“I, like most, would say that the idea of consolidation is one that we really should give careful consideration to because I believe we could become much more efficient in ‘back office’ activities,” he said. Assessing consolidation, he said, “Without the state Legislature acting on this, the chances of it happening with a large number of schools is zero. It just won’t happen.”

Two inner-district mergers have been attempted locally.

Bedford Area School District wanted to close Hyndman Middle-Senior High School and send students on daily round-trip bus rides of 40-plus miles to their new classrooms. In response, the Hyndman community opted to leave the district and open HOPE for Hyndman Charter School during the 2011-12 academic year. Now, since Bedford has closed the local elementary school, too, HOPE is the only education system in Hyndman.

“The reward is being able to offer the community a school of their own,” said HOPE CEO and Principal Malynda Maurer. “For the first time in many years, it is locally operated.”

Ligonier Valley School District merged its two high schools – Ligonier Valley and Laurel Valley – in 2010.

In the last year of operating two high schools, the district’s audited expenses were nearly $27 million, said Ligonier Valley Superintendent Christine Oldham. The total for 2011-12 dropped to $24.5 million. “I believe we are offering strong programs to all our students,” said Oldham. “We’ve continued to experience success, athletically and academically.”

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