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Rumors abound: The Penn Cambria School Board plans to close and demolish the Lilly Elementary School

… inquiring minds want to know

In reality, I have not paid much attention to the Penn Cambria School board much in the past 30 years. They do not appear to be mired down in scandals as they were for so many years after the jointure started in 1966 and during the tenure of the nefarious Tom Kissell.

However, while this is not a journalistic endeavor, I heard something that is interesting involving my hometown. The elementary school on Main Street, rated as one of the ugliest in the state when it was built, is now on the wrecking block.

In fact, it is not just going to be closed, according to one source, it will be condemned and demolished — supposedly because of mold.

In fact, according to one source, the decision has already been made and one board member is using the cryptic expression, “Tear it down.”

I still had reservations, but then I read this on Facebook:

Public Input Meeting

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

What: Provide input regarding current district facilities and any facility projects that may be considered in the future.

Why: To gather information from community members with a variety of perspective before any project options are developed or considered.

[Small print:] This will help CORE Architects as they work through the feasibility study process and develop potential options for PC facilities.

Facebook post

I smell a rat — as a journalist

In honesty, I have not covered the Penn Cambria School Board as a journalist since the 1980s. That was the time when the Penn Cambria students went on strike. I remember it well because in an interview — off the record — with the superintendent, he told me that he was going to win and the high school principal would be moved to the middle school.

He lost, and I told him in that interview that he had lost.

The students won that battle.

However, as an educator, I now look at this in a different vein.

First, the journalist.

So, first, these are the questions that I would ask at the public meeting — as a journalist.

1. Has the decision already been made to close the Lilly Elementary School?

2. Are the decisions that will be made about closing schools — and eliminating teaching jobs — going to be made in public according to the Pa. Sunshine Act or at the Committee of the Whole, which is not open to the public?

3. Has the board already made decisions about closing schools? Is this meeting just window-dressing?

4. Who are CORE Architects and why were they specifically hired? Do they have any ties to anyone on the school board or anyone in the administration?

5. Why in the release about the PC input meeting was the word “before” [any project options are developed or considered] made bold, underlined, and italicized?

6. At the time that these three elementary schools were built, they were called neighborhood schools. Then, suddenly, students from one end of the district in Dysart were bused all the way to Lilly, about 20 miles, instead of going to Gallitzin. Why so much busing? Have you considered cutting down the number of hours a student spends on a bus?

7. Do you as board members realize that every penny spent on busing is money that is not spent on educating the students, on improving their opportunities in life?

8. Closing schools will result in cutting teaching positions — and other positions. How many teachers will be laid off when you close these schools? How many support personnel?

9. Would you consider cutting athletic programs in order to save money?

10. Are the numbers of students so low that the middle school could be moved to the high school building?

Analysis from an educator standpoint

In order to understand the current plight of Penn Cambria, and many other schools in Cambria County, and to see if closing schools may be warranted by matters other than “mold,” I looked at the demographics.

After the three elementary schools were built in the 1970s era, something drastic happened. The PC district went into a tailspin, and it was only partially due to bringing in a superintendent who had been fired from a similar position in Latrobe — and who had promised to cut staff and save money — except for his own salary.

No, this was a period of the Reagan Revolution, and to understand what this meant to PC and to the county, look at the population statistics. From 1980 until 1990, the population of Cresson declined from 2,184 to 1,784, over 18 percent. Gallitzin went down 13.5 percent and Lilly over 20 percent. [I saw Lilly first hand and decided in 1988 to not run for re-election to Lilly Borough Council.]

The steel mills closed in Johnstown, the coal mines closed, and the economy of Cambria County has never really recovered.

Looking at another barometer over a longer period of time, and since I do not have actually attendance figures, I used the yearbooks, the decline has been significant.

For instance, the PC online yearbook listed 250 names in its graduating class in 1979. Perhaps not all graduated, but they were listed as seniors.

In 2011, the last year a yearbook is available online that number of graduates had plummeted to 127 names, a decline of almost 50 percent.

In reality, the closing of schools may be long overdue — and the elimination of administrative positions.

According to Public School Review, PC has 561 students in the high school in 2023. That is an average of 140 per class, so the graduating classes may still be in the 2011 range.

I noted that in the 2020 census, Cambria County had made the greatest decline of any in the state.

What I am saying is that the decision to close schools in the district may be one that has been discussed in previous years. Why hasn’t the board taken this position earlier, like in 2011?

Another good journalistic question.

So, my guess is that attending the public input meeting may be vital for anyone who cares about the education in the district — or the taxes that they pay.

As a journalist, I still smell a rat. As an educator, I realize that these decisions should have been encountered decades ago.

School board meetings across the country have become contentious, and I would not want to see that here. PC went through that for probably 20 years, and it was not pretty.

But, while the meetings nationwide are often about important issues like banning books, this one is a meeting that people should attend -- and act civil, while asking some of those questions listed above.

The Lilly Elementary is the yellow building in the middle of town. Not sure if this is a Phil Andraychak photo, but if it is, thanks Phil.

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