QUAKERTOWN, Pa. - Quakertown Community School District residents Tuesday night urged the school board and administration to delay a decision on closing Milford Middle School. Shuttering Milford is a key part of a series of options being considered to close a $4.7 million budget shortfall.
Thirty district residents registered to speak at the hearing held specifically to present comments regarding the proposal to close Milford in fall. Under Superintendent William Harner’s set of proposals, released last month, the closure would save about $1 million in annual operating costs. Students in sixth and seventh grades would move to Strayer Middle School and eighth-graders would attend the Freshman Center while a $12 million addition is built at Strayer.
Other proposals on the table to close the deficit include the possibility of redistricting if Milford is closed; the consolidation of the elementary schools with the possible closure of Quakertown and Tohickon Valley elementary schools; the loss of up to 40 teacher positions through attrition and furloughs; the elimination of four administrative positions; the end of the cyber program; and the use of modular classrooms. Milford, Quakertown and Tohickon schools each need about $11 million in renovations and upgrades.
Each speaker was limited to three minutes. The state school code requires a public hearing to be held whenever a school is targeted for possible closing, said board solicitor Jeffrey Garton. A decision on Milford Middle School’s fate would not be made until July at the earliest, he said.
Harner, who was directed by the school board in February to identify options that can be implemented over a two-year period to address the deficit, opened the hearing by saying that the district must confront a series of economic factors while recognizing the validity of the concerns and emotions that have been shared by advancing the option of closing Milford.
“As we look at our school system holistically, keeping our eye on the present and future experiences of our students, failure to close Milford Middle School has the potential of damaging not only their educational experience in Quakertown but the educational experiences of other students, even if we execute many or, for that matter, all of the other options under consideration,” Harner said.
He said the option to close Milford will benefit all students. “I recommend absolutely none of these options with any degree of enjoyment,” Harner added. “I have read your emails, I have felt your pain.”
From there, the floor opened to comments. Most of them were unified in seeking to convince the board to hold off on deciding on Milford for at least a year to explore more options.
Former school board member Robert Leight told the board that the Milford’s potential closing was a “casualty of poor fiscal planning,” noting that the school, left to decay, was once considered the “jewel” of the district.
Paul Solliday of Quakertown said the financial crisis should have been identified sooner and that the board should always be focused on potential deficits and prepare for them. “You’re spending way beyond your means,” he said.
Dean Wackerman of Milford Township said Milford Middle School is more than a building but the heart of the community it serves.
“You’ve dropped a bomb on this community and exploded us,” he said. “Give Milford a year to slowly absorb what you’ve dropped on us. Give us a reprieve; let us heal.”
Ryan Wiend, president of the Quakertown Community Education Association, echoed those sentiments, saying the board should develop alternative plans before making a decision on closing Milford.
Other residents expressed concerns about a larger school body in a combined Strayer Middle School, fewer opportunities for learning and diminished extracurricular activities with a thinner staff, longer bus rides and further stress on the roads throughout Quakertown and the surrounding communities.
“Take a year and think thoroughly about what you’re doing,” said Michelle Henry of Richland Township.
Later, asked about the feasibility of delaying the Milford decision, Harner said he would still have to find a way to cut $1 million in annual operating costs. He said the real culprit in the fiscal crisis is the growing, mandated contributions to the state’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System, or PSERS. That has outpaced personnel costs, and Quakertown Community School District is facing a $12.5 million contribution this year, he said.
The school board has declined to use exceptions under Act I to restructure the district’s debt service payment to free up operating dollars to help balance the budget for next academic year, instead asking the administration to present more options to close the deficit.
Expenditures for next year’s budget are projected to be $109,409,164 million; revenues are projected to be $103,532,677 million.
Allentown, PA 18102