By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
If Monday night's public hearing about the future of Har-Mer Elementary School is any indication, most parents and residents want the building to remain open for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
"I moved to Harrisville because of Har-Mer," Maggie Stoughton, parent of a Har-Mer kindergartner, told the school board during the hearing, which lasted two hours and 15 minutes.
Her voice shook with emotion as she shared with the board and large crowd how earlier her son hugged her and wished her luck in saving his school.
"He loves his school. He is thriving there," said Stoughton, who started a petition on change.org to keep the school open; between the website and going door-to-door, she's collected about 300 signatures.
The hearing to gather input on the potential permanent closing of Har-Mer was a required step in the process for the board to consider what to do with the school, which has had declining enrollment over recent years.
The soonest the board can make the decision is in 90 days, which would make their ruling effective for the 2013-14 school year, starting July 1, said the Rev. Michael Scheer, board president.
"The board has not made any decisions regarding this matter," he said.
Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Nogay gave a brief presentation, saying the board might decide to make no changes.
"Entering into the process is not a commitment," she said.
She focused on "educational equity across the school district" and doing what's best for the students in the three elementary schools: Har-Mer in Harrisville, Moraine in Prospect and Area Elementary in Slippery Rock.
The highest enrollment among the three schools was in 1999-2000, when there were 1,301 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The current enrollment is 950, a loss of 351, Nogay said.
Har-Mer was at its highest in 2000-2001 with 170 students; there are now 99 kids enrolled there, the biggest drop of the three elementary schools.
That impacts educational services, many of which are shared among the three buildings. Since Area Elementary and Moraine have more students, they have better access to nurses, Title I reading, small group instruction, an on-site principal and a variety of activities compared to Har-Mer, she said.
If Har-Mer closed and those students were spread out between the two other elementary schools, educational services would improve for those kids, including more music lessons, more assemblies, more guidance and social benefits, more teacher aides and a full-time administrator.
"Much time is lost to travel," Nogay said of how some of the staff splits its time among the three schools, later adding the district covers about 140 square miles.
Har-Mer is the district's smallest area for busing and if the school closes, officials would have to decide where those kids would go: Moraine or Area Elementary.
"This is not unique to Slippery Rock," Nogay said of declining enrollment in surrounding districts, adding the student to teacher ratio would improve if Har-Mer closes.
Also, school officials have to protect taxpayer money since saving on expenses plays a part in this decision, she said.
About $321,000 could be saved if Har-Mer closes; that includes eliminating three teachers and several support staffers and expenses for buildings, grounds and utilities.
It would cost the district about $20,000 a year to maintain Har-Mer if it was closed but remained unoccupied and under the district's ownership, she said.
If Har-Mer stayed open, another teacher would have to be added, security measures would need updated and the water system would need an upgrade -- that would cost about $115,000.
Any changes will have to be seamless and would include a transition team made up of parents, teachers and administrators. All elementary students would meet and socialize if Har-Mer closes, Nogay said.
Up to a dozen retirements are anticipated for the end of this school year and Nogay said she hopes the staff can be realigned so that no one loses their job.
Kenneth Speer, board member and chair of the Har-Mer committee, said Monday was the first time the board saw Nogay's information, so there's much to consider in developing a strategic plan.
Stoughton also said she was a bit in denial at first about the possibility of Har-Mer closing, but the reality of the situation led her to start the petition, getting many signatures in less than four days.
"I think that speaks loud and clear that the community does not want this," she said. "Har-Mer is a rare gem. It's a strength and an asset to our district. We would be foolish to squash that asset."
About 25 other people spoke, most of them echoing Stoughton. Wendy Hindman urged the board to make a decision at the end of the 90 days, especially since school officials have said in the past that the transition period would last two years, not be an immediate change like what's being proposed, she said.
Lisa Alleman, whose son attends Area Elementary, questioned how the student to teacher ratio could improve if Har-Mer closes.
Students from all three buildings will be shuffled to even out class sizes, Nogay said.
Jennifer Walters, who has two special needs children in Area Elementary, said 99 students is not enough to justify paying to keep Har-Mer open.
"I think that Har-Mer should close. We don't have the money," she said.
If it stays open, maybe students from the other elementary schools should be moved to Har-Mer, she said.
The board shouldn't make this decision in haste so soon before the next school year, said parent Diane Bowser, adding she hopes Nogay puts a copy of her presentation on the district website for everyone to see.
Resident Karl Sparn said people need to face the "hard facts" -- families don't have as many kids as they used to, so there are fewer students to go around; the district used to have five elementary schools.
"The population is going down. It's a difficult time," said Sparn, who witnessed the same thing when he worked for Pittsburgh's public school system, when went from about 85 to 35 school buildings.
The board might consider leasing Har-Mer to another educational institution, he said.
Melissa Henthorn, parent of Area Elementary students, questioned whether her kids can stay at their school if children were to be transferred throughout the district.
The board hasn't discussed that yet, Scheer and Nogay said.
Bobbie Jo Comes, mother of three, including a daughter in kindergarten at Har-Mer, said her family bought a home in Harrisville because they love the school.
"Keep the school open. Look at other options," she said, suggesting sixth grade be moved from the middle school to an elementary school.
"I don't think anything's off the table right now," Nogay said of her idea.
Debbie Schell said her daughter has been crying about what might happen because she's heard rumors she won't be able to stay at Area Elementary next school year.
If students have to be moved to another building, the district will likely look at where they live in relation to the schools, Nogay said, addressing Schell's concern that her family lives closer to Moraine but received special permission to attend Area Elementary.
Jonathan Crighton of Harrisville borough council spoke on behalf of council, saying they had not been notified of the potential closure of Har-Mer, which they consider to be a vital part of the borough.
"Closing this school would create a void in the community," he said, adding if it closes he will likely put his son, a Har-Mer kindergartner, in private school, a sentiment he's heard from other parents.
Tanya Felix, who has two kids at Har-Mer and a third who started at Moraine, said she prefers Har-Mer because the staff knows each parent and student by name.
"You feel like a number walking into that school," she said of Moraine, adding she'll consider home-school or cyber-school if Har-Mer closes.
Maggie Cypher, who lives on the border of the areas covered by Har-Mer and Area Elementary, got a big laugh from the crowd when she said her kid was sent to Area Elementary because the classes at Har-Mer were too big.
"Lies, damned lies and statistics," she said of a famous quote she had on hand, the crowd clapping and cheering.
Several other parents asked for better communication from the board while Stoughton spoke again, saying the board has a difficult decision to make.
"I don't envy your position," she said.
Published Feb. 6, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.