Bucks County Herald

Palisades Building Use Committee deals with declining enrollment

CLIFF LEBOWITZ

The significantly increased community involvement, that the Palisades School District building use committee has repeatedly requested as it considers how to best respond to declining district enrollment, may have finally begun to materialize.

At the committee’s Jan. 3 meeting in the high school auditorium, about 25 district residents joined the committee, other school board members, and district staff.

The two-hour meeting was advertised as first focusing on presentation of alternative enrollment projections, and the development of a community survey that would seek input on four remaining options the committee has identified for changing uses of the five district school buildings. Then the second half of the meeting was to consist of community input.

But attendees wanted to ask questions during the presentations, and committee Chair Robert Musantry allowed the agenda to shift to a back-and-forth with the community for the entire time, with the content also including broader issues. Among the residents, four from Tinicum and Springfield were especially active participants.

Asked if the committee name “building use” may have been responsible for low community attendance at committee meetings, when its mission was to recommend whether or not to “close” one or more schools, Musantry noted that language had deliberately been avoided, as implying “closing classes,” when that was not on the table, nor was increasing class size. In addition, he said there was no consideration of “ridding or selling buildings,” but putting them to alternate uses, so they would be available later if enrollment increased.

Asked if the objective was to reduce taxes, he said it was to help minimize future tax increases. After four consecutive years of no tax increase, the district has seen an increase of less than one per cent each of the last two years.

The remaining four options include leaving the use of the three elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school as they are; closing two elementary schools; and closing one elementary school via one of two alternate methods. Closing the middle school was ruled out last October.

In addition to 6.5 potential teacher reductions through attrition and furlough that would be common to all three remaining “change” scenarios, district staff would also be reduced. Depending on the scenario, the latter would include 1-2 administrators; 3-6 food handlers; 1-4 custodians; 1-2 secretarial; and 1-2 non-certificated nurses.

During discussion, attendees insisted that the district could do more to attract new enrollment through changes in programs and services, such as adding pre-kindergarten, while the consideration of school closings was discouraging new enrollment. The committee emphasized that reduction in programs and services, and educational quality in general, were not options being considered, and noted full-time kindergarten was recently added.

Regarding housing for new enrollment, attendees claimed that there was enough available housing in the district, even without new development. Committee members challenged that claim as not supported, including opining that the housing need couldn’t be met “until something changes, such as adding a public septic system to accommodate increased population density.”

Alternative enrollment projections were also a major source of contention, with Musantry agreeing that information in that regard on handouts provided for the meeting should not be disseminated. Meanwhile, committee claims on bus route durations, both present and projected, were rejected as not supported by actual experience.

At the conclusion of the Jan. 3 meeting, there was uncertainty about the scheduling and content for the next committee meetings in February and March, as well as the content, timing, and distribution method for the community input survey.

The next regular board meeting is 7 p.m. Jan. 17, in the high school library.

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