LOCK HAVEN - Each Keystone Central School Board member said it was a painful, difficult decision, but the board voted Thursday evening to close Sugar Valley Elementary School.
About 50 students now attending that school will begin attending Mill Hall Elementary School in the 2012-13 school year - this fall.
The vote was 6-3, with board members Jack Peters, Thomas Shaffer, Deb Smith, James Heiney Steve Murray and James Knauff voting for the plan, and Charles Rosamilia, Wayne Koch and Corey Aungst voting against.
The majority vote for closure might have been higher but for a plea by several Sugar Valley residents to delay the decision to give parents and students more time to become accustomed to the idea.
That delay found a surprise supporter in Rosamilia, who said he believed the closing of the school would be inevitable, either this school year or the next, but who sided with parents on the outside chance that some change might occur over the period of a year to alter the economic, financial or political situation that sparked the vote in the first place.
The proposed delay came in the form of a "motion to table" the vote, submitted by Koch, the Sugar Valley area's school board representative.
Sugar Valley parents of elementary students, including Claudia Albertin and Glenn Vernon, spoke passionately about the importance of the school to the community, its standard of academic excellence and the need for time to allow stakeholders a chance to develop other viable options.
Vernon, who moved to Sugar Valley from Philadelphia about 15 years ago, acknowledged that the school board has a difficult job, "perhaps the least thankful job in America," but said it was his job and the job of parents to raise children, which also is not an easy task.
"Give us time to help," he said. "We were basically informed about this a week ago. I'm not convinced this has to be ... Give us another year to explore alternatives."
Albertin said she strongly resented the political and economic conditions that led to the meeting but suggested the board engage the stakeholders in a "true dialogue."
While finding a level of emotional support and sympathy from the board, the words failed to carry enough weight to force the vote in the other direction - nor did the words of the proposal's most ardent opponent, Wayne Koch.
In favoring a delay, Koch said, his rationale was simple: "The people of Sugar Valley need more time. Parents in Lamar Township had 11 months to get use to the idea of closing that school, and these people have had less than four months."
Koch also pointed out that the 2012-13 preliminary budget the board recently approved carries no tax increase - and doesn't take into account any savings that might accrue from closing the school in Sugar Valley.
The board members voted 8-1 earlier this month to approve a no-tax-increase budget of $64.9 million for the next school year.
"We don't need to hurry this decision," Koch urged, and repeated his prediction that the closure likely will result in no savings at all, as parents of many of the pupils opt to send their kids to the nearby Sugar Valley Rural Charter School.
Koch also signaled a warning that, if enough students make the transfer, the district actually could see expenses increase rather than decrease. The district is mandated to allocate funds to the charter school on a per-pupil basis.
But Knauff said it was misleading to suggest a no-tax-increase budget represents a healthy fiscal situation. He said the district is drawing some $1.1 million from its reserve fund to balance the budget and that will have an impact on future spending plans as the district seeks to bolster that account or maintain financial integrity.
Peters said Koch was mistaken in suggesting the district could re-open the budget to raise taxes in the middle of a fiscal year.
"The budget is the budget," he said, "and I don't believe it can be opened up again."
"That's what the reserve fund is for," Koch said, noting one of the purposes of that account, as recommended by financial advisers, is to act as a hedge against unanticipated expenses.
Rosamilia said he was "100 percent convinced" to close Sugar Valley Elementary but is not convinced this is the time to do it.
"I'm in favor of a no-tax-increase budget," he said, "but I don't see the savings and this is too short of a notice ... The savings are questionable. I don't see them as significant."
The vote to table a vote to close the school was defeated, with Murray, Shafer, Smith, Peters and Knauff voting against the move.
"I wish there were more parents like the two who spoke here tonight," Murray said. "That's what we need. We've been thrust into a situation where it's not just a local decision. I believe this move is inevitable next year, no matter what we do tonight. We need more people to step up and say 'raise our taxes' " to support education.
"We are making an everlasting decision in haste," board member Aungst warned.
Smith said that, if the district must close the school, it made sense to do so in the same year as Lamar Township Elementary School. In that way, she said, Sugar Valley pupils wouldn't be the only new kids attending Mill Hall. She also said she had personal familiarity with Mill Hall Elementary and described it as a "fine faculty and beautiful building."
"I've been a supporter of Sugar Valley Elementary since the charter school came into being," Peters said, "but there comes a time when you have to look at the big picture. Right now there are 50 students, and five years down the road I expect there will only be 35 students."
Shafer noted this was the sixth school closing he'd been forced to consider in his time on the board, and "the second most difficult decision I've had to make ... Your compassion and concern make it all the more difficult. I wish you were here last October when we had people literally screaming at us - not just to hold taxes steady but to make them lower."
Superintendent Kelly Hastings and other administration officials made the recommendation earlier this month, and the issue was brought up at several of the board's monthly finance committee meetings, in which the district's budget for the upcoming 2012-13 school year was discussed.
The preliminary budget includes the elimination of 14 teaching positions, the closing of the Lamar Township Elementary School in Salona, closing the district administration building in Lock Haven and its technology center in Flemington.
The decision already was made to transfer fifth-grade students from Sugar Valley to Mill Hall in order to comply with pending certification changes for elementary teachers, and the vote to transfer the remaining students is tantamount to closing the school for good.
The state budgets of Gov. Tom Corbett have ushered in "an era of cuts and reduced funding to public education," Hastings said, adding that approach is compounded by a concurrent 45-percent increase in the state-mandated school employee retirement pension contribution.