Parents air concerns over school closing


First Posted: 4/11/2013

It was a listening session.

The Pittston Area School Board gathered Wednesday night at the district’s Primary Center in Hughestown for a public hearing regarding the planned closure of the Benjamin Franklin Kindergarten Center.

Board members heard from the district architect, the superintendent and about 10 parents, who were all sworn in and gave official testimony.

The district has already sent notification to the state it is considering closure. Wednesday night’s public hearing is required under law. The district must wait 90 days before any decision is reached, but Pittston Area Superintendent Michael Garzella indicated the district will begin the transition process sooner.

“If we wait until the 90th day to make these arrangements, it’s going to be very, very difficult,” Garzella said. “In order for us to do the transition, we need to do that prior to 90 days.

One concern parents had was putting fifth-graders in with older students at the Middle School. “The differences between a 10 year old and a 14 year old are vast,” said Angie Krieger of Pittston.

Garzella pointed out one benefit for the move: Fifth graders will now have access to science labs and teachers will be able to bring lab time into the curriculum.

Another issue was second graders missing a year at the Primary Center because of the transfer.

“It’s kind of like you’re taking a year of their childhood away,” Krieger said regarding the group of students only getting one year at the Primary Center and miss out on a year of rich activities, events, and “the little things that are so important.”

She also suggested bringing back the music program that was cut due to budgetary concerns.

Garzella said putting a playground at the Intermediate Center is an idea he’ll consider.

Parent Nicole Johnson of Pittston questioned the transition plans.

Janet Donovan, principal at the Intermediate Center, said new students are always given a tour of the building and are able to meet the new teachers. In summer, parents and children are invited in so they become comfortable with the new setting.

Lunch time for the kindergarteners was discussed.

“The children don’t have enough time to eat here, how are they going to have time to eat with the extra grades?” asked parent Meredith Sabarino.

Garzella said the administration will have to adjust the lunch schedules to accommodate everyone.

Casey Wetzel asked if the district is prepared for a rise in enrollment.

“I know the block I live on there’s a lot children that would be going into kindergarten soon,” she said. “What’s the capacity?”

Current occupancy for the Primary Center is 600, and would be 525 if the change is implemented. The Intermediate Center is able to house 900 students and would have 746 students if the changes are made. The Middle School is about to house 1,251 and it has 743 students now. By adding fifth grade, they would add 274, bringing the schools’ total to about 1,000.

The current plan would be to close the Kindergarten Center and relocate the kindergarten students to the Primary Center in Hughestown, which would then become the home to kindergarten and first grade. The second graders would move to the Intermediate Center, which would then house second, third and fourth grades. The fifth graders would move to the adjoining Middle School, which would then handle fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Grades five and six would be housed on the first floor of the Middle School and Grades seven and eight would be housed on the second floor.

Ninth through twelfth grades would still be housed at the High School in Yatesville

“It’s somewhat disruptive to not only one but three grade levels, but it made the most sense to me,” Garzella said.

Patrick Endler, an architect with Borton Lawson in Wilkes-Barre, the district’s architectural firm, discussed the Kindergarten Center’s shortfalls.

Outside problems include an outdated playground, the mulch area needs work, there is not an adequate storage space for things like lawn mowers and plow plows, the adjacent athletic field is lacking fencing and proper lighting and there is damage to some concrete sidewalks and curbs.

From a construction standpoint, the shingle roof is near the end of its useful life, the kitchen equipment is outdated and the carpeting needs to be replaced and the “likely asbestos tile” underneath needs to be removed. Also, upgrades are needed in ceilings, furniture, security, doors and entrances, painting, and the building needs improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, especially the restrooms.

Endler noted meals are not prepared on site and the asbestos tiles are not posing any danger in their current form.

The HVAC and plumbing has issues. Endler said the boiler and the individual classroom air conditioning units are functioning, but they are at the end of their useful life. “It’s hard for the maintenance team to keep up and get the parts that are needed to keep those in working order,” Endler said. He said the temperature controls, water heating and water main may need to be upgraded.

The security system is not the same in the kindergarten center as other district buildings. Telephones and data systems is different. The emergency backup is different and electric service is at capacity. And the lighting is not energy efficient.

“The building is solid,” Endler said. “It has good bones, but it’s getting tired,” he said.

The center was built in 1963 and received a major renovation and addition in 1991. “There have not been any significant repairs to the building since that time.

Several parents voice concern over the asbestos in the floor. Endler said it was not a danger.

“The asbestos is not hazardous whatsoever in its current state,” Endler said. “It is encapsulated in the tile. It’ becomes a problem if it is scraped or removed or torn up.”

He outlined two costs to keep the building open.

Within the next year or two, the roof, carpeting, HVAC, electrical system and fire alarm system all need to be upgraded at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million.

A full renovation of the school would cost $4.2 million to $5.8 million, with a possibility of 10 to 30 percent reimbursements from the state. But Endler said such reimbursement is not guaranteed during the state budget crunch.

Garzella said layoffs or furloughs are unlikely because of the move.

“We’re still going to be educating the same amount of children so I don’t see a change in the teaching staff,” he said. He said some planned retirements in the district could absorb the other staff members at the Kindergarten Center.

Residents also expressed concerns about safety and transportation.

Garzella said he could see adding an additional security officer at the Middle School, which will be adding a grade. He said the district’s bus routes will also have to be reevaluated.

Board President Charles Sciandra suggested looking at the benefits of the move.

“We’re facing a $2 million shortfall and there’s a lot of passion here regarding the closing of the Kindergarten Center,” Sciandra said. “But we should look at what additional benefits are they going to get.”

He said benefits include added security, additional technology and a full-time principal and guidance counselor.

Primary Center and Kindergarten Center principal Teresa McAndrew said change is difficult to accept, but reassured parents that any changes made would not harm students.

“We will not take away the opportunities,” she said. “We will not take away activities.”

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