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1 West Broad Street
Suite 100
Hazleton, PA 18201
Phone: (570) 453-1344
Fax: (570) 459-3946
Hours:  8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m

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Crowd blasts school board over kindergarten move
From the Standard~Speaker, Maria Jacketti / Published: July 27, 2016

Chaos, confusion, and personal and group attacks on the performance of the Hazleton Area school board dominated its meeting that lasted late into Wednesday night.

Two issues occupied the meeting at Valley Elementary/Middle School: the formation of a committee to consider two or more central junior high schools in the Hazleton Area School District for the 2017-2018 school year, and a massive plea for the reversal of the move to half-day kindergarten starting this fall.

Despite the pressure the crowd placed on the board to rescind its decision on half-day kindergarten, with pleas from the audience and state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, no such vote was taken. The motion to form a committee to consider consolidating middle schools passed.

School board President Clarence John and Director James Chapman called for the audience to obey protocol but were largely ignored as many audience members who did not sign up to speak at the podium shouted questions and comments from their seats without identifying themselves.

And while the board asked the audience to hold their comments on the kindergarten issue until after the meeting, for the most part, the audience did not comply with the request.

Much hostility was directed at the school board for cutting kindergarten to a half day and considering the idea to consolidate junior high schools.

Toohil addressed the board, with her remarks drawing a standing ovation from the crowd. She said she never expected the board to go through with cutting kindergarten time.

She went on to explain how the school district would actually lose money by cutting kindergarten to a half day through the state’s new funding formula.

District Business Manager Anthony Ryba responded that his department had already calculated potential losses of funding as a result of cutting kindergarten. The district will save $1.2 million through the cuts, he said, while losses in basic-education funds would come to approximately $100,000.

Toohil also said she is “begging” Gov. Tom Wolf to release “PlanCon” fund reimbursements. In all, Hazleton Area is owed some $11 million in state reimbursement for school construction projects.

Director Marie Kay asked Toohil about the likelihood of receiving a portion of the reimbursement by September. Toohil assured the board that getting the “PlanCon” funds released to the district is one of her top priorities.

However, Toohil sees the cuts as having greater impact in areas of busing and, long term, in special education and English as a Second Language offerings.

Director Bob Mehalick spoke at length about the difficulties he and other board members had when it finally came to cutting kindergarten.

He conceded that board members did have a choice when it came to making the heart-wrenching cut: they could have undertaken a massive furlough of teachers and raised class sizes dramatically.

Additionally, Mehalick told the audience that the anger directed against school directors should have really been directed against the state.

“Look at what is going on in Harrisburg and Philadelphia,” he said. “Hanover (Area School District) is operating in the red (with a negative fund balance). And Erie hasn’t cut kindergarten. It has cut high school.”

John reinforced the point of the district’s dire situation, when a member of the audience shouted out to him, “Why don’t you just cut kindergarten altogether?”

“We may have to do that next year,” John responded.

John also said that if the district continues withdrawing money from its general fund, it will be bankrupt in four years, if not earlier, with the state coming in and taking over.

“Do you want to see that?” he asked the crowd.

The meeting, which was slated to begin at 7 p.m., began a half hour late due to an executive session, with public comment on agenda items running until 9:30 p.m. At that time, John called for a second executive session, after which the actual meeting began.

The meeting finally wrapped up around 10:45 p.m. 



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