Street Corner Soapbox: Consolidation Woes

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Thursday, April 26th, 2012 at 9:00 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Consolidation Woes by Jay Stevens
aconaway

The Erie School District's school consolidation plan makes a lot of sense. Especially if you look at the numbers. Declining city population. Decreasing number of students in the city school district. Increasingly underused space in schools. It also makes sense to kick off consolidation this coming school year -- in the face of a projected $10-million deficit for the 2012-13 school year, the district expects to save around $4 million by "mothballing" three schools.

It makes sense.

Only it's easy to forget the pain caused by school closure and consolidation.

For starters, there are the hundreds of children who attended Burton, Irving, and Glenwood schools, and now face moving and adjusting to a new school. There will be new teachers, a new commute, and new faces in the class. And until the school board approves the closures, the families of these students don't know which school their children will be going to. Uncertainty.

For another, part of the school consolidation plan -- and an aspect of this year's school closures that hasn't gotten much attention -- calls for all district students to return to their "home" school zone. That means students who applied to and were accepted to Harding and Joanna Connell schools would, under the new plan, be sent packing.

Although the district is considering grandfathering those students -- allowing the students currently enrolled in other schools to remain there, but not allowing any new out-of-zone students into those schools -- no doubt the possibility of removing students from their schools, teachers, and friends and essentially moving them to a new school is causing those children and families stress. Especially if their "home" school is lower-performing.

And that's certainly the case of Jefferson 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who, under the district's proposal for converting the school from K through 8th grade to K through 5th grade, would be sent to Wilson middle school, one of the most under-performing schools in Pennsylvania.

"People are upset, understandingly," said Erie District Superintendent Jay Badams in a phone interview. According to Badams, the school consolidation plan was created -- by the Harrisburg firm, McKissick Associates -- based on demographics and trends and the best possible information, not politics.

"He's not from around here," said Badams of McKissik's principle architect, "he doesn't have any political stake in the process."

And that's a good thing, according to Badams. Political considerations might slow or impede the consolidation plan. Erie's under-utilization of its infrastructure, its schools, is unsustainable, and has been for some time. "We kept putting it off," said Badams, and seemed unwilling to pass on the burden of consolidation to other families, other children, in the future.

The positive side to consolidation, said Badams, was that it should help get class size down. Distributing the students equitably to Erie's schools should help balance school populations and district resources.

But the cold reality of the situation is that the district doesn't have a lot of options. "That's the point we're making at the meetings," said Badams.

It all makes sense. From a logical, rational perspective, doesn't it? But then these are real families with real children affected. Not that school consolidation isn't a good goal, something that should be done -- has to be done -- but surely the district and the school board could bend a little to politics and forge some compromises that will ease the transition?

But then, we may not have the option.

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The only decision is whether to build or spectate.

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