About 60 people came out in support of not closing Eldred Elementary School at the Pleasant Valley School District's public hearing last week.
Some of the remarks addressed to the school board were emotional, some were seeking answers, others offered suggestions to help keep the small rural school open.
All members of the school board were in attendance except Charles Hoffman and Tom Murphy.
PVSD superintendent Dr. Douglas Arnold welcomed everyone and said, "When I came here three years ago, I never thought we'd be talking about the closing of a school. But things changed drastically in three years. Many of us attended Eldred; many had children who went there. But we're only doing what is responsible to the citizens of the school district.
"Eldred is an excellent school with excellent residents. The idea of closing it is gut-wrenching, but we're here only because of what has drastically happened."
He then gave a PowerPoint presentation, which boiled down to the dramatic decrease in enrollment – at Eldred and districtwide.
According to the Ingram Planning Associates' (IPA) projected student enrollment of 2002, the projected enrollment for 2009 was 7,254. The 2006 Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) projected enrollment for 2009 was 7,409. But the actual enrollment for 2009 was 6,401. As of last night, the current PVSD student enrollment is 5,933. Now the latest PDE enrollment projection for 2013 is 5,717.
"Is it etched in stone? Is it going to happen? It's like the weather. There's no way you can know if a prediction will actually happen," said Arnold.
It was also pointed out that building permits have fallen drastically for the school district area. In 2009 it was below 10, compared to 2003 when the graph showed it was above 160.
"It means we're not growing. No new homes are being built," said Arnold.
Another fact presented was the enrollment trends over the last few years show the numbers decreased more in the elementary grades. A look at Eldred showed there were 239 students enrolled in 2007. There are currently 155 students at Eldred today.
"Despite our efforts to increase the number of students by trying to redistrict the area to bring more into Eldred, it's still declining," said Arnold.
"Why look at Eldred? Because of the steady decrease in enrollment and the average class size is now at 16. This is wonderful for the children, but there are ramifications from the government. Dora Tartar is our reading supervisor and Title 1 comparability person," Arnold said as he introduced Tartar.
"I went to Eldred in 1956 from first to eighth grade. It is with a heavy heart that I'm here to deliver this program," Tartar said.
She explained that the district receives $1.2 million dollars from the state because of being a Title 1 school.
"That money is used for staff, supplies and summer school. To receive Title 1, we have to present comparable enrollment. Eldred's ratio is 1 to 16 and the other elementary schools are at 1 to 23, not comparable. When I saw this happening, I went to Carole Geary and asked 'What can we do?' She called the Department of Education and we tried working with them. But in the end, when we can't prove comparability, we lose Title 1's $1.2 million dollars.
"This is very hard for a Kunkletown girl who lives only one and a half miles from Eldred. But I take faith that our economy will turn around. Some of you remember that we closed Chestnuthill Elementary for three years. I'm of the faith that we will one day be able to reopen Eldred," said Tartar.
Dr. Arnold said that they had to meet federal requirements. In order to do that, the options are: Hire additional PVE teachers to lower the class size to be comparable to Eldred; add classrooms to house additional classes; close a building with the lowest enrollment and move those into two other buildings.
"The first two are very costly. That's why we're looking at the last choice of closing Eldred," explained Arnold.
The cost implications are: Loss of federal funding of $1,240,000 if not closed; the cost of hiring 13 more teachers at PVE would be $850,000; the approximate cost of savings of closing a building would be $500,000.
"These are the key factors in making this recommendation: decreased student enrollment; operational costs of running a building with sharply declining enrollment; loss of federal funding," said Arnold.
He added that the district would not sell the building and has plans to keep it an active building.
School board director James Spinola asked Chris Fisher, assistant to the superintendent for professional and support services, what would be the longest school bus run for students from Eldred to another school. Fisher said the longest run now is one hour but with the transfer to another school, the longest run would be 45 minutes.
School board director Linda Micklos asked that if the school was closed, could it possibly become a community building, especially for senior citizens.
Dr. Arnold said that the YMCA has approached the district and received a call from an agency expressing interest. Day care facilities have inquired and United Way.
"But anything would be temporary. We hope to someday open it again as a school," he said.