The Tamaqua Area School District is considering a proposal to convert Rush Elementary School, Hometown, into a Primary Center for kindergarten and first grade students.

Superintendent Carol Makuta presented the proposal to the district's board of education as part of its monthly committee meetings last night.

Word of the plan reached parents of students of the Hometown school last week, after Makuta discussed the proposal with teachers. As a result, about 50 people showed up at Tamaqua Area Middle School, causing the session to be switched from the LGI (large group instruction) Room to the school cafeteria, with several speakers questioning the move.

Makuta stressed it was not her intention to be secretive about the proposal.

"I expected to deliver the information in a different matter," said Makuta. "I wanted to take the information to the teachers, discuss it publicly (at a board meeting), discuss it with the PTOs (Parent-Teacher Organizations) and put a summary on the (district) Web site. Instead, it got out there, and people feel threatened.

"Our parents are supportive and deeply care about the education of our children, but here we are in a semicontroversial setting. I never wanted it to be like this. I am proposing an atmosphere that could be good for our students."

Board President Larry A. Wittig said this was the first time the board was hearing the plan and was not in position to make a decision on it yet.

The board does not take action at committee meetings but makes recommendations as to what will be on the agenda for that month's regular school board meeting, scheduled for next Tuesday, April 20. No votes were taken Tuesday.

"Mrs. Makuta just gave us information tonight that we haven't heard before," Wittig said, addressing the crowd. "This would not have happened tonight. There would have been input from you people. There is no action item or vote to do it next week. It is an item to discuss."

The proposal was prompted by the administration's search on how to best utilize Rush Elementary, the smallest of the district's three elementary schools. Rush currently has 121 regular education students in kindergarten through fifth grade, which is about one-third of the building's capacity of close to 300. Schuylkill Intermediate Unit 29 holds some special education classes at Rush, as does the district.

By contrast, Tamaqua Elementary School currently has 494 students, while West Penn Elementary, Snyders, has 230, said Makuta. That gives the district a total K-5 enrollment of 952. Next year, Tamaqua Elementary is currently projecting a kindergarten enrollment of 85, compared to 32 for West Penn and 16 for Rush.

Class-wise, as of March, Tamaqua Elementary has four classes per grade level, West Penn two per grade and Rush one per grade.

Makuta said the district had reviewed the situation at Rush over the past six years, primarily at budget time, and several options have been considered.

One option would be to close Rush and move all of the students, but the board has wanted to maintain a presence in Rush Township, Makuta noted. In fact, she explained that the district is considering $500,000 to refurbish the building over a five-year phase, including $86,000 for a new heating system, $48,000 to fix the gym floor, $112,000 for flooring, replacing doors and repairing the roof.

Another possibility would be to move the district's administrative offices from West Broad Street in Tamaqua to Rush, but the board has rejected that idea in the past, preferring to keep a presence in the borough's downtown.

The district could also move its alternative education program to Rush, but not all of those students are elementary age, noted Makuta. Changing the boundaries for attending Rush would not capture enough students to fill the building.

Makuta said that it was while brainstorming with the professional staff that the idea of making Rush a Primary K-1 Center developed.

The plan would involve moving grades 2-5 from Rush Elementary to Tamaqua Elementary, which would be 97 students by current projections. The district would also move the kindergarten and first graders from Tamaqua Elementary (205 students) to Rush, which would then have a projected 235 students when added to the remaining Rush K-1 students.

West Penn Elementary, which is 10 miles from Hometown, would not be included in the K-1 move because of busing logistics.

"West Penn is the largest township in the state, geographically," noted Wittig. Makuta said West Penn could pick up some special education classes from Rush during the transition.

Board Vice President Dr. Thomas Rottet pointed out that not only would the move help fill Rush, it would also create some more room at Tamaqua Elementary.

Makuta said the positives of creating a K-1 Primary Center at Rush include allowing for grade and age appropriate planning, optimizing class size, providing a better atmosphere for collaboration for Rush teachers, and improving the curriculum. Rush Elementary would also become eligible for federal Title I program spending, which is based on poverty guidelines and could boost the school's educational programs. Makuta views such a center as a nurturing environment.

Concerns with the move included parent reaction to the change, the physical move and transition, as well as a need to revamp the district's transportation routes. The special education programs at Rush could also be affected.

Board treasurer Daniel E. Schoener asked if an analysis of the potential costs of the move could be presented. Makuta said a number of teachers are retiring from the district at the end of this school year, but she did not anticipate the need to add any more staff due to the move.

Wittig said the proposal is being considered more for educational than financial reasons, but added, "the board was elected with the fiduciary responsibility to get the most for the least."

Members of the audience were not convinced the plan would be in their best interests.

One complaint is that West Penn Elementary is not part of plan.

"Everyone needs to be in the same position," said Kelly Boyer Balogach, Lake Hauto, who has daughters in grades 2 and 4 at Rush and moved into the district specifically so her children could attend the Hometown school. "Get on the same page with all three schools, or leave it the way it is."

Balogach said the proposed move has parents exploring their own options.

"We are very concerned about the transition," Balogach mentioned. "What would happen to your plan if we all decided to cyber school our children for a year? It would put the district in a difficult position, but we don't feel we have a choice."

Joe Stanek, Hometown, a past school board candidate, said it was hard to swallow that West Penn wasn't brought into this. He also questioned keeping the administration building open, which currently employs 14.

"I'd be the first to declare that this is not the ideal office to operate as a manager," said Makuta. Wittig, however, noted the district received the administration building for free and dismissed the idea of moving the staff to another building as "absurd. Logistically, it won't work," Wittig remarked.

Holly Koscak, Tamaqua, wanted to know if the move to a K-1 Center would entail the district moving to all-day kindergarten.

"That's another conversation," said Wittig, who is a proponent of Tamaqua Area's current half-day Kindergarten.

Other concerns voiced about the proposal included breaking up a close-knit, familylike school like Rush; swelling of class sizes; lengthening bus routes; and disruption of the current educational settings for both schools.

Makuta said she felt her presentation constituted an official recommendation of the K-1 Primary Center to the board.