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The blogger was right: Penn Cambria superintendent honest about future of buildings in district

The Lilly Primary School Building

… Altoona Mirror story confirms many of my beliefs

A few weeks ago, I reported on some rumors that had been conveyed to me about the closing of school buildings in the Penn Cambria School District. In that, I noted that from a demographics point of view, the district probably has too many buildings and could close some of them, noting that closing the buildings is a reality because they have brought in experts to do a study about the future of the district.

In essence, the rumors may have reflected a sense of hyperbole and overreaction, but the post has been followed by some solid journalism in the Altoona Mirror. And, I realize that most of what I had written in that blog post as an educator is relatively accurate.

The most positive part of this is while two board members claimed that this was misinformation, the superintendent of the district, Bill Marshall, confirmed in that interview that the district has buildings that are being “tremendously underutilized.” I applaud him for being honest and upfront about the situation.

Honesty is the best policy

That is what the parents and taxpayers need in a situation like this,

In November, Penn Cambria School Board members authorized Core Architects of Pittsburgh to conduct a feasibility study and develop potential options for the district’s facilities as student enrollment numbers decline.

“What (Core Architects) have found is that, in all our buildings, the spaces are tremendously underutilized,” Penn Cambria Superintendent Bill Marshall said.

Matt Churella, “Penn Cambria seeks input on future of buildings. Facilities underused as student enrollment continues to decline,” Altoona Mirror, April 21, 2023

His statements were refreshing as he was informing the public about the dire situation it is facing.

The two board members? Not so much.

Here is what the story indicated.

Overview of the issue

In my assessment of the situation, I pointed out the tremendous decline in population of the school district from the time when I taught there in the late 1970s and 2011, which was the last year in which I had any 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…

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.

Hugh Conrad, Wix Blog,

Mr. Marshall brings those numbers up to date,

In November, Penn Cambria School Board members authorized Core Architects of Pittsburgh to conduct a feasibility study and develop potential options for the district’s facilities as student enrollment numbers decline ...

Marshall said Penn Cambria enrollment was 1,803 students during his first year as high school principal in 2008. The district’s current enrollment is 1,545, and Marshall said enrollment is expected to decrease 11% by 2027.

Matt Churella, Altoona Mirror, April 21, 2023

Tremendous drop

My major was not math, but if I did that correctly, what Mr. Marshall is saying is that since he came to PC as principal in 2008, the enrollment in the district has declined more than 14 percent. With another 11 percent that is projected in the next four years, that will be a 25 percent decline in less than 20 years.

That is significant, and it answers some of the questions that I had asked in the original blog. The truth is that with six school buildings, two could probably be closed.

Economy reason for decline

I noted in my original blog that the “Reagan Revolution” never hit PC. The economic declined started with the close of Bethlehem Steel in Johnstown and the concomitant decline in coal production that was used for the manufacture of steel in Cambria County.

That has continued in the PC area since Gov. Tom Corbett summarily closed the Cresson Prison, which meant the loss of a tremendous amount of money to the district in jobs and taxes, and then ended money that was given to renewable energy companies like Gamesa in Ebensburg, which resulted in the loss of about 250 jobs that paid well with benefits.

According to Mr. Marshall, this is the situation in the 2020s,

“With the loss of the prison and other businesses here in the Penn Cambria School District, our tax base can’t meet the needs of the expenditures of the district,” Marshall said.

Matt Churella, Altoona Mirror, April 21, 2023

In essence, what the superintendent is doing is saying that the district cannot afford to keep open buildings that are underutilized.

My evaluation

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?

Hugh Conrad, Wix Blog

So, while I was applauding the district for taking these steps, not everyone agreed. In fact, two board members said that this was misinformation, that the board have never discussed the issue of closing schools in a Committee of the Whole meeting.

Since the conclusions of the experts are in as Mr. Marshall indicates, that was obviously not true.


Were the rumors that the Lilly building was going to be closed because of mold true? Probably not, but the reality is that in a few years, some buildings may be closed, which will cause some pain.

I asked in the original story why the board has not considered closing buildings in 2011.

And why the district is busing students all over the place and why the alignment of students in different buildings was so disjointed,

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?

… 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?

Hugh Conrad, Wix Blog

Marshall acknowledged that the current alignment that moves students from building to building is not positive from an educational point of view,

“It’s not a good setup when your younger students have three building transitions by third grade,” Marshall said.

Matt Churella, Altoona Mirror, April 21, 2023

The reality is that Penn Cambria may be able to do a few things to rectify that. First, have just two elementary buildings with k-5 in them, two middle schools, one in Gallitzin and one in Lilly, and a high school.

Or, it could revert to a junior-senior high school with 7-12 in the high school building.

And close two buildings.

Who knows? That is why the recommendations of the Core group will be important and people should attend that meeting.

Two board members I would not support

To the two board members who alleged that there was misinformation in that blog post, I can only say that I am happy that your superintendent is honest and upfront about the challenges in the district. Your denials that this was discussed in a committee is obviously not true, and PC can do better than that.

I did not even know who was on the school board when I first heard those rumors, but I do know now that five board members will be elected this year. I have met only two of them, and I would vote for one but not the other.

However, because of the problems in the district, it is incumbent for voters — including parents and taxpayers — to study what is taking place and vote for those who may be willing to make the hard decisions.

It is a shame when a blogger has to call attention to some of these issues from a thousand miles away.

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