BLOSSBURG - The Southern Tioga School Board held a public hearing Tuesday on its decision to close either North Penn or Liberty high schools next year.
About 16 people spoke to the board about its potential plans to renovate and reconstruct North Penn High and Blossburg Elementary schools for about $20 million.
A special meeting has been set for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 to consider bids for the project, which the board voted to re-let at its August meeting.
The citizens' comments, about 3-1 in favor of closing North Penn High School, followed a presentation by Superintendent Keith Yarger, who reviewed a feasibility study put together by Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates, of Mechanicsburg.
Yarger repeated what he already has said over and over: "Taxes have been raised over the past three years to support the building project and will not be raised again for that purpose, but they will not go down."
But it is unknown, Yarger said, if the state will reimburse the district for the project. The district is at 75 percent of its borrowing capacity, with $57 million in bonds currently owed on school projects.
Yarger also said that increasing operations costs likely would cause taxes to increase, including hikes due to the cost of school employees' pensions.
According to Yarger, school districts are taking on more responsibility to pay the retirements from the state each year.
"This year our share went up 12.36 percent, or $1.5 million," he said.
In 2013-14, Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) costs will rise 16.75 percent, or $2.05 million; in 2014-15, 21.25 percent, or $2.6 million; and in 2015-16, 25.56 percent, or 3.1 million.
Employees' health care costs also will go up about 10 percent each year, he added.
"Utilities continue to rise and transportation continues to rise," he said.
At the same time, state education subsidies have decreased to 2008-09 levels, he said.
"In 2009, (our) state subsidies received were $14.5 million. This year they are $13.7 million," Yarger said.
According to state Department of Education figures, the district's total enrollment will decline to 1,941 students by 2020, but the district now has only 1,939, meaning enrollment is declining at a rate even faster than predicted by the state or by Crabtree or Quad 3 in their 2009 feasibility study, Yarger said.
Sixty-one high school students left the district this year alone, according to Sharon Miller, a former district administrator, who was the first to speak.
"The majority, I guess, did not move away but rather were removed by their parents who are dissatisfied, and their students are either being home schooled, in cyber-school or private school," Miller said. "If we continue to bleed 61 students per year, you won't have to worry about a high school at all."
Glenn Shaffer, of Liberty, said the books at Liberty High School are "in worse shape than North Penn High School," referring to his daughter's 10th-grade biology book that his wife brought to the meeting. The book, published nearly 20 years ago, is falling apart.
Blossburg Council President Tom Bogaczyk touted the high school's "state-of-the-art" sports complex at Island Park, which has been improved with community funding, not taxpayer dollars.
Jill Nickerson, also of Blossburg, presented a letter signed by community members, taxpayers, business owners and students as "our joint public comment."
Todd Smith, of Trout Run, said he taught at North Penn for 22 years.
"What is happening here is breaking my heart. It needs to end," he said, referring to the "recriminations, cat-calling, obscenities ... I don't care if you are for or against.
"The law says that whenever maximum construction costs of a new school building exceed the standards specified by the law, the project must be submitted to the voters in a referendum," he said, quoting from a state law. "The department will not approve a reimbursable building project when the cost is greater than 25 percent of the total revenue of the district. Whether you are for or against, (we) should have the right to vote and then let that be an end to it forever."