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Tour of Panther Valley elementary demonstrates need for state funding

Brightly-colored bulletin boards showed district pride and grit as state Sen. David Argall toured the Panther Valley Elementary School with administrators Tuesday morning.

A low buzz of children’s voices drifted out of classrooms, as they made their way through halls of the aging elementary in a district that has been struggling financially for years.

Argall, the Senate Education Committee chair, sits on a bipartisan panel charged with making recommendations to address underfunded and unfairly funded schools like Panther Valley.

The district is among those that sued over how schools are funded and won, with the Commonwealth Court ruling the state’s funding formula was unconstitutional.

Panther Valley Superintendent David McAndrew Jr. testified both at the trial and before the Basic Education Funding Commission two weeks ago and welcomed the senator to tour the elementary.

“We really wanted to show Sen. Argall some real life issues that we face every day here,” McAndrew said.

Among the struggles were a center courtyard that not only fills with water, but floods halls and classrooms in high rain events. Maintenance is on call 24/7 to man pumps to keep water at bay.

The school boasts a population of 600 students – 150 of them kindergartners, and limited bathrooms. Some 75 five-year-old boys share one bathroom with a few urinals and one toilet, Principal Robert Palazzo said.

“We have to limit it to one boy leaving at a time,” he told the senator. “So, one of the biggest issues right now is the facilities and making sure they access it as quick as a 5-year-old needs to.”

They also showed the senator a playground behind the school that was built with grants and donations, and a parking lot paved with the help of the communities making up the district.

Another stop was the library, which no longer has books or a librarian. None of Panther Valley’s schools have librarians due to a loss in funding, McAndrew said.

Early in the tour, Argall recalled how magical it seemed when his own children learned to read transforming letters and sounds into words. Books were always in his house growing up, too, as his father was a school librarian most of his life, the senator said.

Panther Valley’s students do have access to books in their classrooms, McAndrew said, and Palazzo pointed out a makeshift library in a side hallway, where a table is set up with various books, too.

The library is now a multipurpose room housing the SHINE afterschool program, STEM activities, Title I and even occupational therapy, McAndrew said. The district purchases some of the STEM equipment, and rural and low income grants paid for other items, he said.

McAndrew thanked Argall for being a proponent of the SHINE program, in which 50 of the school’s 600 students participate. The district would like to see all of their students benefit from the resources, especially STEM, McAndrew said.

“That’s our future goal,” he told Argall.

The administrators also showed the senator classrooms filled with children learning - often unaware their district doesn’t have money to invest back.

Palazzo pointed out that teachers spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on educational materials and make their classrooms fun, welcoming places to learn.

Argall said he wanted to see what was happening in the school, as the state looks for ways to replace a property-tax based school funding system from the 1830s.

“There is probably no more important issue at the state Capitol right now,” he said following the tour. The court’s ruling only reminded legislators of the urgent need to act, Argall said.

The commission will conclude its hearing in the next few months, and then Republicans and Democrats need to sit down “and find a way to change the system.”

Panther Valley has received some “level up funding” to help bring the district up to a level of the richer districts in the state, but it’s not enough, McAndrew said.

Panther Valley is a district that is rapidly growing - up 20%, which is the highest in the state percentage wise, he said. The district can’t keep class sizes low with a booming population and no additional classrooms to expand into.

“There are things we’re looking at and trying to figure out, and what’s our next step forward, and of course, funding will help with that,” McAndrew said.

Before the tour, McAndrew said the district has been underfunded for so long that additional funds now go to just keep pace, and are never quite enough to get ahead.

After touring the school, which houses kindergarten to third grades, Argall agreed the school has needs. He recalled going to an elementary that looked much worse than the PVES, but he has also seen schools much better.

“We can do better,” Argall said.

Panther Valley Elementary School Principal Robert Palazzo talks with state Sen. David Argall, passing a bulletin board with #pvgrit, a theme in the district. Grit used to carry a negative connotation in the Panther Valley, but now is a source of pride, standing for gratitude, responsibility, integrity and teamwork. KELLY MONITZ SOCHA/TIMES NEWS
Books and other resources fill a table and shelves in a hallway in the Panther Valley Elementary School, serving as a makeshift library. KELLY MONITZ SOCHA/TIMES NEWS
State Sen. David Argall visits in a classroom with administratiors at the Panther Valley Elementary School Tuesday morning. KELLY MONITZ SOCHA/TIMES NEWS
A bulletin board outside the library turned multipurpose room proclaims, “Amazing things happen here!” The library serves many purposes, including housing the SHINE afterschool program, but no longer has books or a librarian due to funding cuts.