That’s one of the questions school officials put to residents at Wednesday night’s board meeting, as the district explores the possibility of closing and selling off the junior high building—the district's oldest facility, which is in need of at least $5 million in renovations.
Closing the school in Economy, she said, would mean transitioning seventh and eighth grades to the high school in Ambridge.
Zurchin said district enrollment at both schools continues to decline, resulting in a number of empty classrooms.
In 2001, Ambridge had 3,210 students enrolled compared to 2,637 students in 2013—a 22 percent decline.
With projected budget shortfalls, Zurchin said the district is thinking ahead by addressing lower funding, fewer students, and more competition from charter and private schools.
Two choices: Renovate or Transition?
Three years ago, it was estimated to cost $1.3 million to $3.5 million when the district wanted to upgrade half the heating and cooling system at the junior high.
Renovating the junior high today would be a multi-year project estimated to cost more than $5 million, Zurchin said.
Transitioning the junior high elsewhere and closing the building would produce an annual savings of up to $1 million per year, she said.
A potential sale of the school would provide the district additional revenue and open up the property for other uses, such as offices or an assisted living facility.
If approved, the junior high would remain open next school year while a complete transition plan is formed. To minimize disruption, Zurchin said the school could potentially close at the end of the 2015-16 school year.
“We have to keep students at the forefront of why this is important,” she said.
Zurchin said the plan would optimize classroom space at the high school and give students better advancement opportunities.
The district's vacant school buildings are also being reviewed. Anthony Wayne, for example, could be used as an art center or for classroom overflow, she said.
Several parents spoke out against the proposed plan, calling for more research in the costs and the possibility of re-purposing the Anthony Wayne and Ridge Road schools.
Dave Kozak of Economy, who has a daughter, said seventh and eighth grade is an awkward and confusing time for teens, and he has a problem with sending them to school with older students.
One mother from Economy said her daughter will be 11 when she starts seventh grade.
“My 11-year-old daughter is going to be walking by 19-year-old men. That makes me uncomfortable as a parent,” she said.
Achieving student success
School director MC Knafelc said she personally doesn't want to close the junior high, but she also wants to give students every opportunity possible.
"A good teacher can teach in a barn, but you've got to have courses and we've been cutting course after course, and teacher after teacher," Knafelc said. "...The only place I can see a big savings is something like closing another building, especially when the alternative is to incur more debt."
Board President Mary Jo Kehoe said the district wants to advance student success while living within its financial means.
“The issues our district faces today didn't happen overnight and they're not going to be resolved overnight either," Kehoe said.
School director Jeremy Angus said his mind is not made up and no decisions have been made. He said the board wants to be transparent with the public.
"In many ways we have been dealt a raw deal," he said.
The district would like to hear more from residents before presenting a plan at the June 18 board meeting.
Comments and suggestions can be emailed to BASESreport@Ambridge.K12.pa.us before March 5.
Click here to view the superintendent's full presentation.