Bucks County Herald

Palisades board tries to balance need vs cost saving

Building Use Committee looks at alternatives

CLIFF LEBOWITZ

On an evening when the Building Use Committee received its first public input from parents on how best to respond to declining enrollment, the Palisades School District passed a budget for 2017-2018 that calls for a 0.94 percent tax increase, or a median annual tax bill hike of $32.50, as an alternative to cutting any programs or services.

The budget passed unanimously at the June 7 public board of school directors meeting. Before that meeting, about 20 parents joined a dozen members of district staff in attendance at the district’s Building Use Committee meeting. Nine of the parents offered detailed comments, including ideas that represented a fundamentally different approach to declining enrollment.

With the committee already knee-deep in a comprehensive process of considering alternative uses of its facilities as a response, which Committee Chair Bob Musantry noted was why the committee was named Building Use, some parents wanted to take a step back.

For example, Ed Lawson of Tinicum wanted to know if the committee could consider ideas for increasing enrollment, such as attracting more young families to the district by taking advantage of offering pre-kindergarten.

“Consideration of closing buildings only addresses the symptom of falling enrollment, not the question of filling enrollment,” he said.

He added confidence in a notion of the district partnering with the community to use existing facilities for providing extra help for students before and after school, drawing on residents’ professional and other volunteer expertise.

Other parents raised the issue of optimum class size, which the district would have to grapple with if it wanted to close one or more “under-utilized” buildings. One parent offered her experience with larger class sizes than those typical at Palisades, but that were made feasible only by classrooms being much larger, and with high ceilings.

Among others, Megan Fox of Springfield questioned if declining enrollment was indeed a problem at all.

“Is it that we can’t afford it?” she asked. “Our school is the one asset we have, and I would pay a tax increase to keep it. How much could that be?”

She added that the problem was that “housing is not affordable for young families here,” who often “can’t afford it without having extended-family renters.”

Parents also noted deep concern about the possible loss of the present elementary school configuration that allows for identification of each of the schools with particular towns, and the effect of any changes also on the length of bus rides, which have already been an issue in the district.

They also questioned input the committee has received from townships on new housing projections, suggesting township managers as a better source than supervisors, and in one case offered direct contact with developers as a further alternative source.

Musantry and his fellow committee members Eric Gretzinger and David Haubert affirmed their commitment to preserving and extending educational excellence as primary motivation in their deliberations. They also noted difficulty with communicating with their constituents on the issue, as they work to make maximum information available about the complex issue on the district website, while residents have established their own dialogue through social media.

The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, in the high school auditorium. The present plan calls for further public community input once the committee feels it has arrived at particular recommendations for building use change. Earliest implementation would be the 2019-2020 school year.

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