BLOSSBURG - Shortly before Monday night's meeting, Southern Tioga School Board members were hit with terrible news - 354 school construction projects are ahead of their Liberty High School to elementary school conversion project and the state cannot provide funding for it now.
"Current Pennsylvania Department of Education appropriation is not sufficient to fund them all," said Stephanie DiVittori, district special counsel. "Even after a three-year period, there will still be 166 projects ahead of this district. There's a question as to whether or not the district will obtain reimbursement."
"We were pretty much floored when we learned PDE might not reimburse us," said board member Jane Knipe.
Last December, the board voted to close the program at Liberty High School, consolidate it with North Penn and convert the old high school building into an elementary school. An architect presented plans for the conversion project, but after some contention on behalf of the public, the agenda item was pulled.
"Do any of the five of you that voted for this catastrophe have the guts to stand up and say, 'We made a mistake, let's just hold it?' Changing Liberty High School into an elementary school is a disaster. Why? What's wrong with the elementary building?" said Jim Kreger, of Morris Township.
But even if Liberty and North Penn high schools are consolidated, it won't fix the ailing budget. According to school board member Ivan Erway, at least two schools must close to make the district viable.
"We need to close at least one in the next year, and then another as quickly as possible," Erway said.
The board eyed closing Blossburg Elementary School, another unpopular consideration.
"I believe children should be educated in the least restrictive environment possible, preferably in their own neighborhoods. We're between a rock and a hard place and we have to go back and rethink our options," Knipe said.
As required by the state education department, the board unanimously voted to reaffirm its decision to close Liberty High School, although Superintendent Keith Yarger said the decision could be reversed.
"We need quick decisions, but quick should not preclude thorough," said board member Barbara Shull.
The board indicated two primary goals: to move toward a centralized high school and to keep a school within each community wherever possible.
"What is the best option available, given the existing buildings and financial constraints we're under?" asked Erway.
Many board members and citizens offered suggestions, but no one had a definitive answer.
"We need time, information and other options and alternatives," said board member Susan Jaquish.
"The board is looking to decide on these issues expeditiously," Yarger said.
The board made recommendations to the administration, including allowing for a north/south option instead of consolidation. The administration will come back to the school board with as many options as possible and then a decision will be made, hopefully within the next few weeks.
The school board encouraged the public to submit ideas in writing by postal mail, within the next few days.
"Help us," board member Stephen Hall said. "We're here to help you."
The board's next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 13 at the Liberty High School auditorium.