NA Superintendent Recommends
Closure of Peebles Elementary School
and Elementary/Middle School Redistricting
At the School Board Meeting on Wednesday, November 28, 2012, Dr. Raymond D. Gualtieri, Superintendent of Schools, asked the School Board to take two significant steps for the 2013-2014 school year:
- Close Peebles Elementary School to enable the District to become even more operationally efficient. Several studies over the past two years have confirmed there is sufficient excess capacity to allow for the closure of a small elementary school. The Administration is confident the current, high quality elementary educational program can be delivered in six buildings.
- Authorize the design of a Redistricting Plan for implementation across six elementary schools and the existing three middle schools to appropriately equalize enrollment in these buildings. One criteria of the redistricting model would be to move as few students from the schools where they are currently attending as possible. At this time, the Administration estimates approximately 500-550 elementary students and approximately 300 middle school students would be affected by the final redistricting scenario.
The School Board and the members of the Administration have been studying the enrollment projections and facilities capacities at the elementary level for two years. A variety of specialized consultants have assisted with the studies. The in-depth research and trend analyses laid the groundwork for Dr. Gualtieri’s recommendations. There was also additional work done on this topic 15 years ago.
“The Administration understands that these recommendations will not be easy to accept for some of our NA parents and residents,” said Dr. Gualtieri. “Peebles is a school with a long and colorful history, as well as a reputation for excellence. It is a well-loved school where many students have received an excellent foundation for learning and living.
In my experience, parents and students in general do not like the word ‘redistricting.’ Redistricting is essentially synonymous with change and it is human nature to resist change. But we have to remember that change can also bring innovation, new beginnings, and fresh opportunities. Change is often a positive experience in our lives.”
Process of Closing a School
The School Board cannot simply vote to close a school. There is a legal process that must be followed. These are the steps in the process:
- The Board must vote to set a date for a public hearing.
- The date of the public hearing must be advertised for at least 15 days.
- The public hearing must be held on the subject of closing the school.
- The Board cannot vote on the subject of closing the school until 90 days after the public hearing.
- At any time during this process, the Board may choose not to continue the process. Entering into the process is not a commitment to the process or an indication that the Board has decided to close Peebles. All input from the public on the topic will be considered prior to the Board vote.
The Administration asked the Board to vote on December 19, 2012 to set the date for a public hearing at the end of January 2013. They requested a Board vote on the closure of Peebles at the end of April 2013. This schedule has been established to allow adequate time to design and implement a successful school closure and redistricting plan for 2013-2014.
The Superintendent’s Rationale
Two consultants have provided reports to the Board and the community on the Demographics and Feasibility Study. The Administration has delivered four public update reports on the study. Together these reports make up the foundation for the recommendations Dr. Gualtieri presented on November 28. Prior to announcing his recommendations, the Superintendent summarized the conclusions that led to his final decision:
- 15 years of study and experience have verified the District has excess capacity: Fifteen years ago, when Espe Elementary School was closed and five elementary schools were renovated, data indicated the District had excess capacity at the elementary level, even with the closure of Espe. The Administration recommended Peebles should be closed or not renovated. At that time, the School Board chose to renovate Peebles and ‘watch and wait’ to see if the enrollment trend projections were accurate. Today, it is clear the projections were correct. The District still has sufficient excess capacity at the elementary level to allow for the closure of Peebles and still support the delivery of high quality programs.
- The School District can and will continue to deliver a high quality educational program in six elementary buildings: The Administration has done extensive work to demonstrate that delivering the existing educational program in six buildings will result in the following:
- On-going competitive edge and future stability - By closing Peebles, the District will become even more operationally efficient and fiscally responsible. This will provide long-term economic and programmatic benefits to maintain the high quality reputation of our schools and our community into the future. A continued commitment to community accountability, fiscal responsibility, and high student achievement will ensure the District’s standing as one of the best in the state and the nation.
- Operational efficiency protects and enhances educational programs and services - When less money is spent on utilities, maintenance, supplies and staffing - there is more money to invest in educational programs and services. When educational programs and services are provided in six buildings instead of seven, there are staffing savings relative to instructional delivery in special area programs and other educational services. In a time when public school funding is decreasing and the economic situation in our community and our nation is challenging, the District feels it is critical to take every opportunity to maximize operational efficiency and to focus on the preservation of high quality educational programs.
- Enough classrooms plus spares - The recommendations will result in more efficient utilization of school facilities through the flexible reassignment of appropriate classroom spaces as needed. Each of the six schools would still have one or more spare classrooms available, should there be a need to use them.
- Maintains existing class size guidelines - A redistribution of students may even reduce class sizes of 30 or more by smoothing out enrollment patterns.
- The Administration and the consultants have done an expert and exhaustive study of elementary facilities usage and projected enrollment trends: The School District is in the unique position of being able to draw upon valuable resources when conducting a study of this nature. Those resources include: a depth of experience and expertise in the field of educational administration; personal contact with field experts including teachers, support personnel, and parent volunteers; and a wide variety of data sources specific to the organization.
The Administration has also used the services of two demographers and two consulting firms to assist in various aspects of the two-year Demographic and Feasibility Study. As a result, the Board and the community have been presented with information that is clear, well-researched, and definitive to support the recommendation to close Peebles. (All reports except for the Phase I Study are posted on the NASD website www.northallegheny.org. The actual Phase I Study is not available in electronic format, but a summary of the findings is posted.)
Rumors and Misconceptions
Community members have attended Board meetings during the two-year period of time that the Board has been considering the Demographic and Feasibility Study. Since August 2012, there have been many questions posed by residents prior to and following presentations and on the community blog. Following is a synopsis of frequent topics and summary responses:
- Why did the Administration decide to recommend the closing of Peebles when Bradford Woods was recommended in the Phase I report?
The first recommendation from the Phase I report was to close Bradford Woods because the projected costs associated with renovating Bradford Woods in that report were very high. Peebles was also one of the recommendations in the Phase I report. Following the review of the Phase I report, the Board was not comfortable with the demographic information or the cost estimates for the renovations, based upon their previous experience with renovation work. Therefore, they commissioned a second report to be done by a consulting firm with whom they were familiar from past projects.
When the second report came in and the Bradford Woods renovation costs were reduced, other criteria for selection relative to closure became the focus. The Administration examined each elementary school to determine room utilization within the proposed design. In addition, all special programming spaces were considered. The draft redistricting scenarios identified that Peebles would have no spares after consolidation. It was also clear that Bradford Woods is adjacent to the identified growth areas. As a result, Peebles was the school recommended for closure by the Administration.
Rumors are circulating that the advocacy of residents of Bradford Woods may have influenced the Administration’s change in recommendation. That is not true. The recommendation is based upon criteria established to identify the best long-term solution for the whole District. In fact, Bradford Woods has two spare classrooms when operating within the parameters of the proposed design. No individual or group of individuals influenced the Administration’s decision.
It has also been suggested that there may be a tendency on the School Board or Administration to favor Bradford Woods. This is not the case. Six out of nine School Board members are residents of McCandless. Two Board members reside in Marshall and one resides in Franklin Park. Six of nine administrators reside in the District. One resides in Franklin Park and the rest in McCandless.
- If the District closes Peebles, class size will increase and there will not be enough classrooms to provide appropriate learning environments for children.
In the November 28 Report, the Administration showed the results of an exercise they completed to illustrate the impact of closing Peebles if enrollment were to remain exactly as it is today in years to come. They created this model by placing the enrollment numbers for October 2012 into draft Re-districting Scenario #1. (The details of this exercise can be found in the presentation on the website - slides 16 – 36.) Information gathered from multiple site visits of schools was also utilized to develop the room assignment detail. The resulting model provided specific information regarding the following important issues:
- Class size impact by school and by grade level;
- Specific room utilization for each special area and support programming by building;
- Change in average class size District-wide; and
- Impact on middle school enrollment.
A number of significant observations were able to be made as a result of this exercise:
- Operational efficiency was improved.
- Class size was maintained within District guidelines and in some cases, improved.
- The scenario leaves 11 spares remaining across the District.
- All regular classrooms would have windows and more than adequate space.
- The middle school feeder program is improved.
Finally, the Administration listed a series of options that will be available to deal with any unexpected spikes in enrollment at an individual school or in a particular area.
- The forecasts cannot be right! People have suggested there are better ways to develop enrollment forecasts; the exact projections of annual enrollment numbers may not be exact; new housing developments or new job opportunities will bring new residents to the area; or their neighborhood experiences of ‘in-migration’ are evidence of overall District growth.
There are many ways to do forecasting. The District has used a number of formulas and perspectives to forecast. While there has been variety in the approaches, the results have all pointed to the same trend: a stable to declining student enrollment.
It is important to note these things:
- The focus of enrollment forecasting is not on specific numbers of students per year, but on the trends or variance from year to year. The District has not seen a projection in conflict with the trend described as declining over five to ten years.
- Current and projected new housing developments, new school enrollments and withdrawals after Third Day Enrollment numbers are recorded, and anticipated business growth have all been accounted for in the development of the demographic and enrollment studies the Board has received.
- When younger students move into the District, their enrollment is captured in the retention rates when the District’s annual enrollment forecast is updated. The same is true for any students who withdraw.
- A stable overall population, or even a slight increase in overall population, does not equate to an increase in student enrollment. Student enrollment is primarily indicated by live births and the age demographic of households. Research shows that a comparison between 2000 and 2010 data from the 2010 census and the Allegheny County Health Department provides four conclusions:
- The number of children in McCandless under the age of 5 has decreased,
- The number of people of child-rearing age in McCandless has decreased,
- The number of people older than 55 in McCandless has increased,
- And the rate of migration into McCandless for children under 5 years is significantly lower than any other NA municipality.
The District did a forecast in 1997. Stable and possibly declining enrollment in an environment of existing elementary excess capacity was projected. The Board decided to take a ‘wait and see’ position. Fifteen years later, that projection has proved to be accurate. The District is currently operating with sufficient excess capacity at the elementary level to close Peebles Elementary School.
To better understand the real life evidence of decline in enrollment in the McCandless attendance area, consider Hosack and Peebles Elementary Schools over the past six years. In 2006, there were 407 students enrolled at Hosack (building capacity 540) and 388 students enrolled at Peebles (building capacity 540). In 2012, there are 335 students enrolled at Hosack and 374 students enrolled at Peebles.
- The projected savings of approximately $850,000 resulting from closing Peebles will not be enough to balance the budget. It isn’t worth doing!
Closing Peebles is a sound management decision which adds to the District’s on-going efforts to operate in a more fiscally and programmatically efficient way. This is not a recommendation driven by the need to balance the budget. It is a bigger, longer-term consideration for District programs. It is the right decision to make for now and for the future of the School District and the tax-paying community at large.
This School Board is comprised of nine highly committed individuals with skills and experience that make them uniquely qualified to analyze the information presented to them and make decisions in the best interest of the community that elected them. Board members have professional experience in banking, law, energy consultation, large facilities management, contract negotiation, accounting and financial management, education, construction management, strategic planning, community volunteerism and political advocacy. They are long-time residents of the District and parents of current and/or former students of the District. They take their oath to serve the community very seriously.
- The District should be looking at other ways to save money. Some residents believe there are other good ideas like outsourcing the Transportation Department.
Over the last several years, the District has been doing a number of things to address decreasing revenues and increasing expenditure obligations including charter school tuition, pension funding, and mandated programming expenses.
A group of parents suggested outsourcing the NA Transportation Department should be investigated as a cost-saving/revenue generating option. That group estimated the sale value of our bus fleet to be $10M.
The Administration and the Board indicated that a study of this option was conducted recently. The savings identified as a result were not significant. The study is scheduled to be updated in 2013-2014, prior to the re-negotiation of the bus drivers’ contract. However, due to public request, the May 2011 findings are as follows:
May 2011 Trade-in value of the bus fleet: $2,468,000*
May 2011 List value of the bus fleet: $3,127,000
*Considering that this valuation is now 3 years old and no new vehicles were purchased last year, we would estimate these figures to be lower in 2013-2014. After the initial sale-back of the fleet, the District would pay a rental cost for the use of the fleet that would quickly equal or exceed the purchase income from the sale of the fleet.
2009-2010 NASD Total Operational Costs $5,960,235
2009-2010 Private Carrier Operational Cost Bid $5,664,245
Savings as a result of outsourcing $ 295,990**
**Considering that this Department has been downsized twice since 2009-2010 and the number of bus routes reduced, we would estimate the operational savings to be lower in 2013-2014.
It is also important to realize that through outsourcing, the District would relinquish control of all aspects of student transportation to an outside provider. As a result, the District would lose the ability to fully manage transportation administration. This would include personnel hiring, training, and supervision; and vehicle maintenance.
Other cost saving and revenue generating measures have been implemented in the past two years. They include but are not limited to:
- Reduction of approximately 90+ staff over the past two years.
- Offering an ERIP to eligible professional/administrative staff.
- Implementing wage concessions and/or freezes across employee groups.
- Reduction and/or elimination of school-based programs.
- Reductions in operating expenses through the annual zero-based budgeting process.
- Reduction or delay in capital improvement projects and bus purchases.
- Increases in class size across all levels and adjustments to elective courses.
- Implementation of a student participation fee.
- Elimination of supplemental contracts.
- Increase in parking pass fees for NASH students.
- The re-negotiation of the contract for District-wide copying and printing services.
- The reduction of school building budgets back to levels equivalent to 2003 funding.
- The redesign of bus routes to eliminate the use of small buses and decrease the number of drivers.
- Increasing the level of employee premium contributions for benefits to the highest percentage paid in any school district in Allegheny County.
- Development of an advertising policy and increasing revenue from various forms of advertising.
- Renewed energy and effort by the North Allegheny Foundation to increase fundraising.
- My child will not have the same quality educational experience at NA unless the District agrees NOT to make any changes in the elementary program; i.e. NO school closures and NO redistricting.
This is probably the most flawed and most damaging misconception of all. North Allegheny has been and will continue to be a high quality, high performing school District with outstanding elementary schools where children learn and achieve and grow. The best interests of all students will continue to drive decisions at the micro and macro level every day.
All NA schools are excellent – Some parents have attempted to make decisions about the quality of various schools based upon their understanding of PSSA achievement data and AYP status. Some of their remarks have reflected a lack of understanding relative to PSSA scoring, regulations and reporting. To qualify for AYP, a school must have overall scores as well as the scores of all sub-groups at a certain level. Scores from sub-groups, such as the sub-group of students with disabilities, are not reported unless there are more than 40 students in the group.
In small schools, this means that most sub-group scores are not reported and do not count toward AYP qualification. In large schools, the students with disabilities sub-group often does count. It is most often this group of students with disabilities that disqualifies a large school from AYP. In our District, Marshall Middle School, NASH, and McKnight Elementary School have all missed AYP due to the scores of this sub-group in certain years. However, informed analysis of the performance of the general population in these schools reflects outstanding achievement.
This unfortunate situation occurs because students with disabilities are required by the U.S. Department of Education to take the same test as all other students and are required to meet the same proficiency thresholds as other students. This issue has kept many outstanding large schools and some school districts from making AYP. It is also one of several significant reasons why school districts would like to see the No Child Left Behind legislation reformed or repealed. It is in conflict with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.
Redistricting will occur – The District must redistrict all elementary schools, whether or not a school is closed. The natural shift in population that occurs in every school district over a five to seven year period has resulted in the uneven distribution of enrollment.
Operational efficiency will improve and preserve programmatic excellence – The same level of commitment of teachers, administrators and staff that has made NA the outstanding School District it is will continue to provide support and instruction to our children. High achievement scores, state and national honors, exemplary special programs, and a rich array of co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities will continue to be the hallmarks of this District.
The Big Picture
Dr. Gualtieri urged the Board and the community to consider his recommendations from the perspective of the whole District and the future of the community.
“The economics of our time leave us with fewer options,” he said. “We must continue to be the best we can be in every way – first and foremost for our children, but also for our residents. We must insist on excellence in educational programs and opportunities and find a way to sustain them through maximum operational efficiency. This is the motivation for my recommendations. I have confidence that this School District can deliver excellence within the framework of the model the Administration has defined.”