The Way I See It: Millcreek School District Should Say ‘Yes’ To Putting a School in a School Building

Categories:      News & Politics    Opinion
Wednesday, December 10th, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Before it closed its doors back in 2013 due to major budget deficits in the Millcreek School District, Ridgefield Elementary School was one of the last remaining "neighborhood" schools, where education was the focus and a family atmosphere was clearly present.

For nearly a year now, that building has remained empty. Back in August of this year, two organizations came to the forefront with an interest in purchasing the vacant building – Montessori Regional Charter School and Process and Data Automation, an engineering firm.

Seeing a great opportunity for expansion, Montessori Regional Charter School offered $1.1 million for the building while the engineering firm placed a bid of $950,000. Additionally, due to the nature of the organization, the engineering firm would have had to seek a use variance (the charter school would not) to rezone the land in order to use the property.

On the surface, the decision should have been a simple one.

The charter school would maintain the original mission of Ridgefield by providing a competitive academic environment for students and would also allow neighbors and organizations to use the school’s playground and four to five acres of sports fields. Maintaining this facility as a school, with these amenities, would also help to maintain existing property values.

The school district, however, voted unanimously in favor of the engineering firm.

Their stated reasoning? The firm was a for-profit business and would have to pay real estate taxes – and it would not take money from the school district.

However, had the School District done a little research ahead of time, they might have come to realize that Millcreek’s Zoning Ordinance contains strict requirements to rezone – the most obvious requirement being that any applicant for a use variance would “have to prove that the property cannot be used for any purpose for which it is currently zoned.”

Which, clearly, was not the case.

As a result, recently, the purchaser pulled out of the deal, and the group is back to square one – as the School District is still holding its stand on not selling to the Charter School – because it’s not good business practice.

While Montessori maintains that it is not a threat to other schools, the district unfortunately doesn’t see it this way. According to Anthony Pirrello, CEO of Montessori, “Millcreek will get $1.1 million for the building, remove their current expenses off the books, and gain $10,000 per year of revenue. Repurposing the building will not provide the same economic benefits.”

Currently, the charter serves about 445 students in kindergarten through sixth grade at two campuses, one on Sterrettania Road, the other on Raspberry Street in the former St. Andrew School. The student body includes students from nine different school districts, with only 76 of the Montessori students living in the Millcreek district.

The concern is the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s funding formula.

To date, the district spends more than $1 million annually on charter school tuition costs; the group fears that would increase if it sold the building to what it considers a competitor.

Pirrello tells me, “We will sell our Sterrettania site once we combine the two. That’s been a real mistake out there and falsehood that we need Ridgefield to expand. We don’t. We can put 550 to 600 students total in our current building right now if we wanted to. We are looking at Ridgefield because it’s $3 to 4 million less than putting an addition on at Sterrettania.”

The charter school plans to expand to accommodate another 600 students. That will happen regardless of whether the Ridgefield sale occurs.

“The perception is that a charter school will take money away from a school district,” Pirrello says. “There’s X amount of dollars being put in for education – the question is: Where’s it being allocated? Parents should have a choice when considering their child’s education. It’s more attractive to family and businesses to have options – parochial, private, public, etc. That is how you keep a vibrant community – by offering real choices and creating academic competition.”

Moreover, the purchase would add money back into the community. “If we buy Ridgefield, we will sell our Sterrettania site. That property is zoned for commercial use – and we will only sell to a taxable entity; this will create approximately $10,000 per year in additional revenues for the Millcreek schools.”

The way I see it, the school board is only acting in their own best interest and not in the best interest of the community and the families of Erie. Public schools should welcome competition, as it can only increase the value of education provided to the children of our community by offering viable alternatives.

In the end, I’m not sure the Millcreek Township School Board really did their homework on this one.

Love? Hate? Agree? Disagree? I want to hear from you. Email me at rStyn@ErieReader.com and follow me on Twitter @rStyn.

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